Each night, vans coming from Istanbul discreetly release dozens of migrants at the border between Turkey and Greece. The region, which spreads out along the banks of the Meriç River [or Evros River in Greek], remains one of the main illegal access points into Europe. Using small boats, buoys or simple ropes drawn between the two river banks, men, women and children cross through the powerful current of this body of water that serves as a demarcation line.

On Tuesday, May 24, the European Commission presented a proposal for restrictive measures to stem growing criticism from those States most exposed to illegal migration. In 2010, the flow of illegals to the border already caused“an unprecedented humanitarian crisis,” according to Apostolos Veizis head of Greece’s Doctors without Borders team.

The migrants poured through a well-known gap to the south of the Turkish city of Edirne. Here, exists a patch of land border 12 kilometres long, easy to cross, through the fields, at night. Nearly 50,000 people were arrested in Greece in 2010 after having illegally used this access into the Schengen Free Circulation Zone, today decried throughout Europe. Thousands of others got through without getting caught.

62 people died trying to cross the river

“It’s a boulevard, that access must be closed down,” argues Georgios Salamagas, head of the police force at Orestiada, a small Greek border town. The Greek government has asserted its determination to build an anti-immigrant wall to plug those 12 km. The agency charged by the European Union to manage its border, Frontex, reacted in November by deploying 175 police officers from the 27 EU countries to the Edirne/Orestiada region.

The mission, which ended in March, had an immediate dissuasive effect. Arrests along this sensitive portion of border fell by 44%, Frontex reported. But the Orestiada police still intercepts a thousand migrants each month. More importantly, this highly-targeted operation displaced the problem further to the south. “Of course, the networks for human trafficking adapt quickly,” confirms Grigorios Apostolou, head of the Frontex team, which has opened a permanent office in Athens.

The border stretches along the Meriç River and the coast of the Aegean Sea. In 2010, at least 62 people died trying to cross the river. The bodies are rarely claimed and are buried in the village of Sidero, a Greek hamlet near the border, in a lot surrounded by wire mesh which serves as a cemetery for migrants.

“They beat us, we are treated like animals"

On the Turkish side, there is no indication of either a fall in attempts to cross the border illegally or of an improvement in the treatment of migrants. In the south, the army, which controls the border, reinforced its patrols. At the Pazarkule customs station, soldiers search the surrounding area using heat-sensitive cameras. “We caught 25 Algerians tonight,” says the garrison commander.

Once arrested, the migrants are sent to one of the region’s retention centres. The Edirne camp agreed to open its doors to a group led by MEP Hélène Flautre, chair of the EU-Turkey committee. Before the visit, the retention centre was emptied of two-thirds of its occupants and cleaned from top to bottom.

In this decrepit building, the travellers who land here are crowded together without any respect for regulations. Fourteen year-old Afghanis are locked up with adults. Retention time is set arbitrarily. One Tunisian man who tried to reach France explains that he’s been locked up for four months. He’s in the company of Moroccans, Burmese and Nigerians. “They beat us, we are treated like animals,” complains Mohammed, an Algerian. The cell is suddenly filled with a man’s shouting, a deserter from the Russian army suffering from psychiatric problems. “Don’t worry, he’ll soon be sent home,” the centre’s director says.

Greek-Turkish border remains porous

At the Soufli camp, on the Greek side, the situation is even worse. Fifty people are crowded into a cell of 50 square metres. No outings are allowed. “Three weeks ago, there were 115 of us, it’s inhuman,” says Yusuf, a young Christian Iraqi. “Some people are sleeping in the toilet and this cupboard,” he says, pointing to the cupboard. A single shower is operational. Two Iranians, who fled during the 2009 protests, are on a hunger strike. A Nigerian suffers from diabetes.

Asylum seekers are held for at least six months before their case is eventually examined, and, in most cases rejected. Yusuf isn’t even thinking of asking for asylum in Greece. “I fled Iraq in 2004, crossed Europe and made a request for asylum in Sweden. But they sent me back to Baghdad in 2009 saying the war was over,” he says.

Frontex continues to operate in the area. But the Greek-Turkish border remains porous and hard to control with its dozens of islands easily accessible by boat and because the illegal migrants trying to exploit those gaps are always more numerous. The flow towards Greece, seen as highly sensitive since 2008 when a record 150,000 arrests were made, is explained by increased surveillance along the Italian and Spanish coasts, Euro MP Hélène Flautre notes. The Greek route is used by 90% of illegal migrants.

Translated from the French by Patricia Brett