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Photo Gallery: The Back Door to Europe

Foto: Manfred Ertel/DER SPIEGEL

Illegal Immigration Shutting the Back Door to Fortress Europe

Greece wants to erect a fence on its border with Turkey to stop illegal immigrants from crossing into the EU. But the ruthless people traffickers in Turkey will do whatever it takes to get those dreaming of a better life into Europe -- no matter what the danger to the immigrants.

When the bus for Athens pulled away, the area outside the Filakio detention camp looked like it had been the scene of a mass panic. Sandals, sweaters and backpacks were scattered all around after being jettisoned in great haste.

Just moments before, Galal Hani and the other refugees from the Greek camp had stood shivering in the mud in freezing temperatures trying to make themselves look presentable in their clean jeans, sneakers and suede jackets. Now they are on their way to a new life.

Hani, a 30-year-old Hani Moroccan, describes how he got here. He says he took a budget flight from Casablanca to Istanbul. From there, he took a bus to the northwestern Turkish city of Edirne. And, from there, he walked cross-country across the border and into Greece. Having now been released from the Filakio refugee camp, he intends to travel via Athens to Italy, where his ex-girlfriend and their child are reportedly already waiting for him. He claims he lost his ID papers while traveling. All he has now is a letter from the transit camp.

This free pass to nowhere is his official notification that he is a "deported" refugee who has 30 days to leave Greek territory. And that's precisely what Hani intends to do. But rather than following the authorities' instructions and returning to Morocco, he intends to travel to Western Europe -- as do most economic migrants who arrive in Greece.

Greece's Guantanamo

Filakio lies in northeastern Greece, close to the borders with Turkey and Bulgaria. It is currently Europe's most notorious transit camp for refugees. Filakio's seven dormitories were originally intended to house up to 372 people. But a guard reports that there are currently twice as many people at the center, adding: "Welcome to Greece's Guantanamo!"

At the base of fence made of two coils of barbed wire, a pool of stinking sewage has formed. Behind the fence, overflowing trash cans are surrounded by dozens of open plastic bags and loose bundles of clothes. Rats scurry across the courtyard. Police officers now only enter the buildings wearing medical masks, and the camp's few visitors are bombarded with complaints by its temporary inhabitants.

The camp spans an area of 1,500 square meters (16,000 square feet). There's one dormitory for women, one for minors and five for men. Each holds eight showers and eight toilets. Three times a day, food is brought into the camp. But when almost 800 refugees are crammed into it -- and, on particularly bad days, there are even more -- the conditions in Filakio become unbearable. People have to squeeze into the long rows of bunk beds, and many end up sleeping on the floor. The toilets are often blocked, and there are puddles in the corridors.

'A State of War'

Still, Filakio only drew international attention when news emerged that Greece was planning to erect a fence to seal off its border with neighboring Turkey. The fence will run along an approximately 12-kilometer (7-mile) stretch of countryside that refugees from the far corners of the world know as the gateway to the EU. Owing to a bend in the Maritsa River -- which the Turks call Meriç and the Greeks Evros -- this is the only spot where the northern border of Turkey touches Greece on dry land. From here, would-be immigrants can enter "fortress Europe" without even getting their feet wet.

Greece now intends to shut this back door. Last year, Greek authorities recorded some 27,000 illegal border crossings in this small area alone. No one knows how many people really came across, but the true figure is undoubtedly far higher. Another 12,000 people traversed the Maritsa at other, less convenient places -- whether by swimming, wading, boat or even walking across the frozen river.

At present, nine out of every 10 illegal immigrants entering the EU comes via Greece. Most of them arrive in the region that Georgios Salamangas, the police chief of the nearby city of Orestiada, is responsible for. "We're in a state of war," Salamangas says. Since controls have been tightened throughout the Mediterranean -- from Gibraltar to the Aegean -- more and more refugees are opting for the land route running east to west.

Salamangas also says he's noticed a major change since Turkey waived its visa requirements for inhabitants of North African countries. In addition to Afghans, Iraqis and Palestinians, a significant share of the refugees now come from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. "We didn't use to get them," he says.

The mustachioed Greek police chief is at pains to show that he cares about the well-being of the refugees in his region. He says he helped recover 16 bodies from the Maritsa in June, bodies of would-be illegal immigrants who had drowned in the raging river.

The Mystery Corpse

The Maritsa flows down into the Sea of Marmara. The border runs along the center -- separating Greece from Turkey, the Occident from the Orient, Euroland from hinterland.

On Jan. 5, a woman's body was pulled out of the river on the Turkish side. She had dark skin, was about 170 centimeters (5' 8") tall and wore her hair in Rasta-style dreadlocks. "Probably Somali," a doctor says. It's not the first time he's seen such victims.

The woman's body has been brought to a hospital in Edirne. Lying in the hospital's back courtyard, it appears to have been in the water for some time, and her facial features are already hard to make out. Eventually, her lifeless body is put into a white plastic bag and taken to a tiled room.

According to Frontex, the EU body responsible for external border security, more than 40 people washed up dead on the Greek side of the Maritsa in 2010. There are no comparable figures for the Turkish side, only brief reports in the daily newspapers: Eighteen bodies were found in the first few days of 2010, four dead -- presumably Palestinians -- were recovered in April, and another one washed up near the village of Elçili in September.

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.

The EU's Border Patrol

Chief Inspector Gennaro di Bello, the head of the German contingent of Frontex, doesn't believe the barrier will plug what he calls the "huge hole" in the EU's external border. But he thinks the fence could still prove somewhat useful. "A fence would act as a deterrent," he says, "and therefore give us more time to react."

Di Bello and colleagues from around the EU have been stationed on the Turkish border since November 1 at the Greek government's request. He claims their presence has stemmed the tide of refugees. Chief Inspector Marco Weise, from the German city of Görlitz, leaves no doubt about what he considers the main reason for his deployment: Frontex is there to make sure "the problem stays in Turkey."

The problem he's referring to are people like those who turned up in the biting cold in the Greek farming village of Nea Vyssa, just a few hundred meters beyond the border, at 6:30 a.m. two Tuesdays back. They were shivering; some were even barefoot; and their clothes were old and tattered. At moments like these, the Frontex officers have to decide what to do. Should they send them back to Turkey?

Frontex officers are only allowed to use violence or their weapons in self defense. As a result, the moment refugees arrive on Greek soil, they more or less demonstratively wait around for the EU border guards to arrive. "If we follow refugees, it's only to ensure that nothing happens to them," says di Bello with disarming frankness.

A Matter of Pride

Over in Edirne, where spotlights illuminate the four minarets of Sulemiye Mosque at night, the authorities joke about the passivity of their Christian neighbors, contrasting it with their own far rougher practices. "Frontex? What is that?" scoffs Gökhen Sözer, the province's chief administrator. "They have a helicopter and a couple of officers who simply watch what's happening."

Sözer receives his guests wearing a suit, tie and well-polished wingtip shoes. His office is about the size of one of the holding pens used to keep refugees in Edirne prior to deportation. "We caught 11,400 refugees last year," Sözer says. "The Greeks are just building the fence to make us look bad in the eyes of the EU."

Sözer thinks that's unfair -- and he's willing to show us why. He says a checkpoint has been set up on the disputed finger of land that is connected to the rest of Turkey by a bridge over the Maritsa. On the other side, there's an open expanse into Greece. He says he has personally ordered guards to be posted there around the clock -- and he invites us to come see for ourselves.

The Turkish Border Guards

It's Tuesday night, the same night that will see the woman with the dreadlocks found at the edge of the river slightly downstream. Cars, minibuses and delivery vans race along Lausanne Street and toward the Greek border without slowing down. The checkpoint is manned by four soldiers. But since conditions are frosty, they are huddled inside their heated vehicle.

Selvan Topçu, the government press officers, has already arrived and is barking orders into his mobile phone to various people. Within minutes, he has unleashed a spectacle of oriental splendor: Four more guards arrive, and now eight border-control officers are braving the cold, resolutely pulling open the doors of trucks and buses and demanding indentification papers.

But the result is the same: No illegal immigrants are found.

Only later that night, once the flashing blue lights have been turned off again and the reinforcements have been withdrawn, does the traffic start flowing across the bridge over the Maritsa as before.

A Nameless Burial Far from Home

Who was the last person to see the woman in the dreadlocks alive? It must have been someone in Doyran, a village on the Turkish side of the river, where she was later found.

Doyran is a godforsaken settlement 30 kilometers (19 miles) south of Edirne. It has 350 houses and lots of stray dogs. The locals grow rice and melons. Past the last farmyards, where the river cuts through the countryside, there is a deadly silence after 6 p.m. The area is a military no man's land.

The men playing dominos in the brightly lit coffee houses look up briefly and shake their heads. No, they haven't seen or heard anything. A little later, one of them notifies the police. Strangers who ask too many questions in Doyran are apparently something the authorities should deal with.

But strangers who disappear in the region are apparently a case for their families to deal with -- even if those strangers came from far away. If nobody claims her in the next few days, the body of the woman with the dreadlocks who was found in Doyran will travel the same path as so many have before her. This path leads down to a cemetery next to a gypsy settlement not far from Edirne. There, the nameless woman pulled out of the Maritsa River will be laid to rest under a pile of clay soil -- so far from her home, but so close to her goal.

As the crow flies, the European Union is just 10 kilometers (six miles) away.

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt