Illegal Immigration Shutting the Back Door to Fortress Europe
Part 2: Searching for the Identities of the Dead
But who was the woman with the dreadlocks? How did she get to the banks of the Maritsa on this icy January night? And with whom?
Authorities on both sides of the Turkish-Greek border are baffled by a series of complete mysteries. Professional people smugglers usually force refugees to get rid of their personal belongings -- passports, mobile phones and anything else that could reveal their true nationality and thereby facilitate their subsequence expulsion from the EU.
The woman with the dreadlocks will be kept at the morgue for 15 days in order to give friends and relatives a chance to identify her and apply for her body to be repatriated. Since time is short, any clues are critical.
A day after her body was dragged out of the river, a handful of volunteers went to the "Curl Palace," a café in Aksaray, a district of Istanbul with a high proportion of immigrants. There, they meet two elegant, dark-skinned women who had tried unsuccessfully to cross the Maritsa four days earlier. The women say that two fellow refugees, a man and a woman, had crashed through the thin ice and died.
The woman's name was reportedly Senait Ariaya. She was a 28-years-old native of Eritrea. She had dreadlocks, just like the woman in the morgue in Edirne. She was also slim and about the same height as the deceased. The women say Senait had spent four years trying to get to Europe on a meandering journey via Sudan to Egypt, then on to Dubai and finally Istanbul, from where she had set off for the Greek border.
Senait's fellow refugees may have escaped her fate, but they have no idea where to seek help. They live underground in Istanbul, caught in legal limbo in Turkey, helpless in their plight, condemned to fend for themselves. They say people flee Eritrea not because they dream of prosperity, but simply to be free. Then the women put their tea cups down, leave the café and disappear into the evening commotion of the streets and into the alleyways of Aksaray.
The Crossroad between East and West
A people smuggler tells us that those who make it to Aksaray are within a three-hour drive of the EU border and have already spent most of their savings.
The man -- who asks to be referred to only as Ekrem -- is friendly, muscular and in his late 30s. Two of his employees usher me into his sparsely furnished office behind the Selimiye Mosque in the heart of Edirne.
If Istanbul is the main hub and financial center of the people-trafficking business, then Edirne is its field office. The former capital of the Ottoman Empire has always been a crossroad for cultures and religions, a stopover for conquerors and conquered, and a point along the path of people on the run.
Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Greeks driven out of Turkey came through Edirne. Shortly before the end of the Cold War, tens of thousands of Turks fled there from Bulgaria. Today, it is people from the dark underbelly of the globalized world who are taken through Edirne toward the Maritsa River at night in large, blacked-out vehicles.
The Long Journey
"It's like this," Ekrem explains. "The entire package costs my clients up to 10,000 ($13,000), no matter where they're from. Many clients are brought to Turkey from Iraq. From the border, they are then taken to Istanbul by bus or truck. An escort drives two kilometers ahead to warn about possible police checkpoints. Then they are dropped off along the Bosphorus, in Aksaray or nearby."
The journey from there is only organized later. Ekrem says the people-smuggling business is "a free market" in which Kurds play a leading role. "Many of them come from the southeastern edge of Turkey and were therefore sent to perform their military service in Edirne, at the other end of the country. So they know the terrain."
The last leg of the journey, to the Greek border, is made in minivans with their seats removed. "Twenty-five people at a time, pile up like crates of tomatoes," Ekrem says. The decision about when to attempt the crossing has less to do with the weather forecast than with the duty roster at the Turkish military barracks near the border. "The officers there are too demanding, too expensive," Ekrem says. "We work with the lower ranks; they tell us who is going on patrol when."
Ekrem says that cooperation with the military is very good. In exchange for turning a blind eye, soldiers are given free phone cards, 400 and the refugees' remaining Turkish cash. That way, everyone profits. "Only Allah is occasionally permitted to take without giving something in return," Ekrem jokes.
The refugees are charged the equivalent of 200 each for a simple river crossing by boat. For 600, they can get the luxury package, which entails being dropped off at a specific kilometer marker on the Greek highway and having transportation for the next leg of their journey already organized for them.
Ekrem boasts that, on his best night, he took 650 refugees to Greece by boat. When asked where, he adds that it was not very far -- but far enough -- away from the strip of land the Greeks now plan to fence off.