The European Union is often accused of being soft on immigration, allowing too many people to move around too freely. The Hungarian government is particularly scathing about this, while ignoring entirely the fact that hundreds of thousands of its citizens benefit from the very same policy.
Hungary has been roundly criticised by the EU for putting a long fence up to keep refugees out. Yet the same EU, and its other member states around the borders, are now practising exactly the same techniques.
Bulgaria’s fence on its border with Turkey has succeeded in stopping refugee flows there. And now, on Greece’s land border with Turkey, there is not only a heavily militarised fence but an alleged policy of violence by Greek security forces towards refugees that is resulting in death and injury.
We first reported in December how refugees were increasingly turning away from the route over the Aegean Sea to the Greek islands on the grounds that those islands were a trap they could never escape from.
Instead, they were trying to move over land, further north, across the border west of Istanbul towards Thessaloniki in northern Greece. That forces them to cross the long, wide Evros River (or Meric as it’s known in Turkey).
The entire border is heavily militarised and in one long section the EU had already put a fence up to keep refugees out. All that, we had already discovered, was having tragic consequences.
When we returned to find out some more, it quickly became apparent that the Evros route has taken over as the journey of choice for smugglers. For a start, it’s far more lucrative for traffickers to put people in a van and a dinghy across a river than a boat across the sea. You can move more people and make more money. Our rough estimate is that the Evros route must be worth $10m a year to the smugglers, many of whom seem to be in tow to Turkish mafia gangs and organised crime. One of the traffickers we interviewed likes to carry a pistol.
We also heard how the smugglers keep refugees locked in homes around the border and film themselves beating the refugees. They send the video to the refugees’ families and demand more money as the price for letting them go.
Turkey says it caught 50.000 people last year trying to cross the river. That makes it look like the most important border crossing point into Europe now.
Refugees who spoke of the crossing said they were terrified – not just that they might drown or die of the cold, but that they knew there were wolves and wild boar in the vast empty spaces near the border. You could get eaten.
But that’s just one problem. The other is what happens if you do get across and the Greek security services find out. In case after case, we heard refugees saying they had been forcibly returned to Turkey. Some said the Greek police were polite. Others said they had been beaten senseless. Yet more said they had seen people shot at while in the river, while they were trying to turn their dinghy around. Villagers on the Turkish side said they heard gunfire regularly. To add to it, the Turks and Greeks can’t stand each other and if one side began firing then the other shot back, they said.
But routinely, the refugees said, the Greek side simply put them back in a boat and pushed them away, back to the Turkish side of the river.
We asked the Greek police to talk to us about their treatment of refugees and the allegations against them. They denied flatly pushing people back and insisted they deal with people humanely. Any number of lawyers will tell you the “pushback” policy – already practised in places like Hungary – is illegal. It also doesn’t stop refugees from trying again and again. Which is how many end up dead. They simply don’t have anywhere to go.
And those who do walk for days to get to Thessaloniki, the major city of northern Greece, increasingly find themselves homeless. Greece was taken by surprise this time last winter when temperatures fell to minus 20C and faced huge criticism for its terrible facilities. Nothing much has changed. The big numbers now crossing the Evros now expose Greece once again. It is widely assumed Greece doesn’t want to improve facilities to deter refugees. It isn’t working.
So while Hungary continues to berate the EU for being too soft, in fact, the EU and its other member states are practising exactly the same policies on other borders. Turkey, heavily criticised in Europe for human rights issues, is proving extremely successful in helping the EU deny the human rights of refugees.
The EU casts itself as the world’s leading liberal voice. Its member states are desperate to keep the anti-Muslim, anti-immigration hard-right out of power. As a consequence, they have joined the likes of Hungary in its battle with the refugees.