European Purgatory Migrant Smugglers Helping Refugees Return to Turkey

The closure of the Balkan route has left tens of thousands of refugees stranded in Greece with nowhere to go. Smugglers who once profited from sneaking migrants deeper into Europe are now offering a new service: A way back to Turkey.
Von Riham Alkousaa und Maximilian Popp

Mesut Mahmud dreamed of a life in Germany, France or Sweden. But now, after spending four months in Greece as a refugee, he only wants one thing: To get out of Europe.

He crawls through a thicket of reeds and woods along the Greek-Turkish border, mosquitos biting his face and sweat pouring down his forehead. His arms are covered in scratch marks from the thorns and his shoes are caked with mud.

Once night fell, Mahmud, 37, made his way along the tracks from a station in the Greek border town of Orestiada toward Turkey, a Tunisian migrant smuggler leading the way. In tow were his 23-year-old sister Selma and his 11-year-old brother Yilmaz. At the edge of a town, they veered off into a field, hid in a ditch from Greek police officers and waded through a swamp.

By now, Mahmud can hear the sound of the Evros River rushing along the Greek-Turkish border. He uses his cellphone to illuminate the way while reaching out to grab his sister's hand. "Selma, hang in there," he says. "We're almost there. We're almost in Turkey."

For a long time, the stream of refugees flowed in a single direction -- from Turkey, through Greece and the Balkans and on to central and northern Europe. But now that one European Union member state after another has closed its borders, many migrants are stuck. In Greece, nearly 60,000 asylum seekers are waiting to travel north. Some of them have already begun heading back to Turkey of their own free will -- out of frustration and despair.

The refugees' retreat is illustrative of the failure of European asylum policy. The EU has not offered those stranded in Greece adequate protection. Those who decide to return to Turkey make their way back across the border with the help of smugglers because no legal pathway has been established. Greek police officers estimate that in recent weeks, between 30 and 40 refugees have crossed the Evros back into Turkey every day. Many of them are fathers from Syria who lived in Germany but whose wives and children weren't allowed to join them. The German government made it more difficult for refugees to send for their families earlier this year.

'Sweetheart, I'm coming back'

Mesut Mahmud, a gaunt man with thinning hair and tired eyes, worked as a truck driver in Qamishli, a Kurdish city in northeastern Syria. Shortly after the war broke out, he fled with his two siblings and his wife to the southern Turkish port city of Mersin. He found a job at a construction company and he and his wife had another son. He wanted to stay in Mersin and wait out the war that was raging back in his home country, but life in Turkey has become unbearable for Kurds, he says. The Turkish government has expanded its campaign against Kurdish separatists into cities and towns in the country's Southeast. Since the winter, military attacks in the region have been blamed for the deaths of hundreds of civilians.

In late March, the EU and Turkey reached an agreement to stem the flow of migrants traveling across the Aegean Sea to Europe. A few weeks prior, Mahmud had climbed into a smuggler's rubber dinghy with his sister Selma and little brother Yilmaz in the Turkish port city of Izmir. Initially, they had wanted to go to Lesbos and then on to Germany, from where Mahmud planned to send for his wife and newborn child once he arrived. What he didn't know was that Macedonia had already closed the route north through the Balkans. Like so many others, Mahmud was stranded in Idomeni, a village on the Greek-Macedonian border.

The president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, has called Idomeni a "disgrace for EU countries." Some 14,000 migrants lived there for months in tents, starving and freezing and the police quashed uprisings with batons and tear gas. In late May, the Greek government cleared the camp and Mahmud moved into the "Hotel Hara," a camp set up in a motel parking lot a few kilometers outside Idomeni.

Most migrants don't apply for asylum in Greece. The conditions for refugees there are miserable, especially after years of economic malaise ushered in by the financial crisis. Refugees wait months, and often years, before they are able to apply for asylum, with the Greek government putting them up in industrial barracks on the outskirts of its cities, sometimes without electricity or running water.

Mahmud held out for weeks at the Hotel Hara. He used a flattened cardboard box as a bed, but rats crawling over his legs and the screams of children and the sick robbed him of sleep. The European Commission announced last fall that it would relieve Greece and Italy of 160,000 refugees and distribute them throughout the EU. So far, only a few hundred have been resettled.

"I thought Europe would respect human rights, but life in Greece is worse than in Turkey. At least there's work in Turkey," Mahmud says.

When he called his wife in early June, he wept. It was hard for him to abandon his hope of a life in Germany, a place where he thought his family could once again lead a life of security and freedom. But now he knows that Europe isn't going to help him.

"Sweetheart," he said into his phone, "I'm coming back to Mersin."

Trapped in Greece

As part of its deal with Ankara, the EU has been deporting migrants from the Greek islands back to Turkey. But for those refugees who reached Greece before the pact was sealed, there are hardly any legal channels for returning. Mahmud and his siblings scraped the last of their money together and took a taxi from the Greek-Macedonian border to Thessaloniki. From there, they continued by train to the Greek-Turkish border city of Alexandroupolis.

For a long time, Alexandroupolis wasn't on migrants' radar at all. Athens sealed off the route from Turkey over the Evros River in 2012, after which most asylum seekers began arriving by boat via the Aegean Sea. But now, refugees making their way back into Turkey are once again using Alexandroupolis as a transit station, since Greek and Turkish police are patrolling the sea more strictly than they are the land border.

The train station in Alexandroupolis has become a collection point for the stranded and disappointed. On a humid June day, a number of refugees were waiting to return to Turkey. One, a pregnant Syrian woman, had escaped the misery of a camp in Athens. There was also a Syrian orphan from the Hotel Hara and a nurse from Damascus who spent months in a camp in Bavaria waiting for his wife and daughter to be allowed to join him from Turkey. "Germany can't force me to live without my family," he said.

Mahmud arrived in Alexandroupolis on a Sunday morning. A smuggler approached him at the train station, claiming he would be able to bring Mahmud and his siblings into Turkey by way of Orestiada and the Evros River.

Turkish smugglers have a firm grip on the human trafficking business in the region. They employ refugees in Turkey and Greece to help them recruit new customers. For a long time, the gangs earned their money by smuggling migrants into Europe, but now they offer services in the other direction, too. For €800 ($885) per person, they attempt to bring refugees from Alexandroupolis to Istanbul -- but they don't always make it through.

The sun has already begun to rise as Mahmud and his siblings reach the border. Mahmud is breathing heavily: An old stomach wound from when he was once shot back in Syria is throbbing. He forces himself to keep going, but as he emerges from the thicket, he hears a command: "Stop!" He turns around and Greek police officers are quickly upon him. He puts his hands up in the air, his brother and sister cowering beside him. The smuggler disappears into the forest.

The police officers arrest the three Syrians. Mahmud gives the guards in Orestiada his personal data. After identifying the smuggler from a mobile phone picture, he is allowed to leave. Greece has no interest in arresting migrants trying to get back to Turkey. In the afternoon, Mahmud huddles together with his siblings at the train station in Orestiada. He plans to return to the Hotel Hara. He doesn't know where else to go. By now, he's exhausted his savings. "For us, Greece is a prison," he says.

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