The words European Forced Migration Crisis bring to mind images of bright orange life vests or of people huddled shoulder to shoulder in cramped rubber dinghies, floating along at the mercy of an expansive black sea. Those familiar images may begin to shift, however, as asylum seekers are forgoing the Eastern Mediterranean Sea route in favour of a journey by land.
A path well-worn by the footprints of thousands before them, migrants and asylum seekers are rediscovering and capitalising on an old smugglers’ route along the 200km plain dividing Turkey from Greece. A natural border carved by the Evros River, more people arrived in Greece from the low wetlands along Europe’s northeast rim than by sea last month. April saw 2,900 arrivals by land – half of 2017’s total amount – and that upward trend is expected to continue as the climate becomes more temperate and Evros’ water levels drop.
The hike in land crossings can partly be attributed to increased westward movement of people fleeing violence in the Middle East. Ongoing and elevated conflict in Syria and Afghanistan, devastating civilian populations over the past year, have prompted mass exodus toward Turkey and Europe. Even Turks, seeking liberation from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s regime, see opportunity in the land route.
Furthermore, those desperate to enter Europe may see Evros as the only feasible option. Europe’s east Mediterranean corridor, the continent’s most popular migration route which saw nearly one million migrants in 2015, was effectively shut down with the implementation of the EU-Turkey Deal in March 2016. The European Union struck a deal with Ankara in order to stem overall migration flows to Europe, pledging three billion euros to aid Turkey – which hosts 3.7 million refugees – as well visa-free travel within the Schengen zone for Turkish citizens, as well as continued discussions of possible EU accession – an opportunity that has diminished over time.
According to the agreement, any migrant who crosses from Turkey to the Greek islands must qualify for asylum, otherwise they are returned to Turkey. For every returnee, a Syrian refugee would be resettled in Europe on a one-for-one basis. However, what began as a concerted effort to stem a growing issue, turned five Greek islands into refugee camps for 15,000 people (double the structures’ capacities) who have had to wait several months – even years – for their asylum claims to be processed.
The land route enables asylum seekers to avoid the overcrowded island camps, the exhaustive asylum processes and the geographic restrictions inherent to the islands. Since the route is not subject to the terms of the EU-Turkey deal, asylum seekers are, upon registration, given 3-month residence permits and are free to move about mainland Greece – and in all likelihood, the rest of mainland Europe.
However, the land route is far from idyllic. Like the Mediterranean corridor, crossing the border into Greece presents significant peril. The Evros River typically takes five to six minutes to paddle across, and the journey turns treacherous when the water levels are high. Over 1,500 people have perished in or along the river over the past 18 years. In the first three months of 2018, the wetlands claimed 12 lives – compared to eight in the entirety of 2017. Those are just official numbers; fishermen and huntsmen traversing the remote region have witnessed many more unreported deaths along the banks of the river.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has called for urgent improvement of reception facilities to accommodate the large influx of migrants along the Evros land route. The region’s Fylakio Reception and Identification Centre is overwhelmed and overburdened, stretched far beyond its 240-person capacity. Many people have had to seek refuge in police detention facilities. The UNHCR has deemed the situation untenable; many vulnerable populations, including pregnant women and unaccompanied and separated children, aren’t receiving the immediate medical and psychosocial support services they require.
In response, Greece sent an additional 120 police officers to the region and has tapped Frontex, the EU’s border security agency, to augment reception efforts. However, several asylum seekers crossing into Greece from Turkey allege that the Greek authorities have threatened them and forced them to turn back – illegal under both refugee and international law. Greece, who along with Italy, is offering refuge to more migrants than any other EU member state, has defended its asylum practice and its procedures both on the islands and mainland, ensuring that the country is doing its utmost to balance the bulk of continental-sized problem on its shoulders. Dimitris Vitsas, migration minister, maintains the Greek Government’s enduring efforts to “[enhance] everyday life of the inhabitants who are in the front line during the ongoing refugee crisis” and “vigorously defend the values of humanity and solidarity.”
It may still be too early to tell if the Evros corridor will become the next highly saturated migration route for those seeking safety and new life in Europe. But as conflict rages on to the East, the appearance of silhouettes emerging from Greece’s misty lowlands may become a familiar image in the next chapter of Europe’s Forced Migration Crisis.