Accidents, violence and death at the border

Accidents and death at border…

… belong unfortunately to the daily experiences of refugees trying to reach a safe haven. The massive fortification of the European borders aiming at keeping the unwanted sans papiers outside are neglecting international human rights protection and the Geneva Refugee Convention (1951) as well as all other international and national laws for the protection of the basic right to asylum. The European Border Protection Agency FRONTEX in co-operation with national authorities are increasingly hightening and thickening the fences and walls around us, controlling and patrolling the borders and externalising them to neighbour states such as Turkey, Morrocco, Tunesia a.o. where they have created Treaties of co-operation and huge refugee camps at the gates of Europe. The European strategy of externalisation of borders reaches up into the hearts of Africa and Asia with a number of Readmission Agreements (i.e. among Greece and Turkey) among states and other kinds of transnational agreements.

This exclusionary migration policy is successively harshening but as an African refugee has put it:

No one can stop the rain!

As long as people are forced to leave their home countries because of war, repression, poverty and hunger there will be refugees arriving in all countries that can offer at least a little bit of protection and a small hope on having a future – in Europe but mainly in the neighbouring countries that offer support and protection. Nobody would risk his life without a reason. Trying to cross a number of borders, among them the ones of Fortress Europe is exactly that: A huge risk of death! It is a long way that has to be taken during day and during night, walking for miles in the heat and the cold, across mountains and rivers, driving (hidden) inside, on and under overcrowded trucks and cars without any fresh air, crossing the sea under all weather conditions in ship wrecks or small dinghies or walking through mine fields.
The border crossings to Greece and from Greece to other European countries are only one step of many. The border lands at the Aegean islands (Mytilini, Chios, Samos, Leros …) are marked by relicts of the past years. Dinghies, life wests, paddles, clothes, holy books can still be found on the beaches.

The cemeteries of the islands remind of the victims of the border that never managed to arrive, but drowned on their way to Europe.

It was only in the beginning of 2010 that the migration routes changed and the majority of refugees started crossing the land borders in Evros / northern Greece. The borderline between Greece and Turkey is 192,5 km long of which 12,5 km are land-borders and 180 km are marked by the river Evros. As Frontex has repeatedly stated, this border currently covers up for 90% of the undocumented migration to Europe. It is the way to the lands of hope or into the hidden mass graves of refugees – the wet ones and the dry, the last minefields of Europe. Until 2009 there was a constant number of border accidents in the mine fields of Evros. The personal mines have been cleared now according to the Greek government. Anyway, the cemetery of Sidero in Evros is the symbol of continuing death at border. At least 46 refugees died in 2010 in the river Evros, not to mention the many injured who survived but were severely handicapped due to the weather conditions in winter or due to police violence in detention. Many of the bodies are carried also on the Turkish side. The real numbers of dead are not known but are surely higher than officially declared.

The river Evros is at the moment the main place of death at the Turkish-Greek borders. Refugee trying to cross the border in small or big groups often underestimate or just don’t know about the dangers of the river. Some cross in small dinghies but others even try to walk through the waters. Many don’t know how to swim. Rainfalls increase the water level and the strength of the river flow and the fright of being captured by Turkish or Greek authorities or by Frontex officers makes the crossing even more dangerous. This was the case in the summer 2010 when a group of 50 tried to cross the river. There was only one small dinghy for the small children and some of the women, while all the rest had to build a line holding hands and cross on foot. The refugees started to walk. Some of them were too small while the level of the river had increased and their heads disappeared under the water. The water flow through the line apart and the ones who could’t swim got lost. The Afghan woman T. was inside the dinghy with her three small children. Her husband was walking through the river. He knew how to swim. When the line of people broke, she could watch him with the bags of her children trying to save some others whose bodies were disappearing under the water. The last image she imagines is his body being carried away with the stream. Until today she does not know about the whereabouts of her husband and the father of her children. In September 2010 J. from Kenya started searching for his wife. The only thing he knows is that she was supposed to cross this border and that he never heard anything else about her. He is also searching since months for his lost wife never giving up the hope.

The cemetery in Sidero / Evros is the main burial site of refugees who lost their lives on the land border to Turkey. In August 2010 the cemetery of the muslim minority of Sidero was nothing more than a mass grave at the rims of the village. Situated on a small hill and only marked by a sign, that was saying: “cemetery of illegal migrants: Mufti Sidero” and that was covered by holes of bullets it was a plane ground that showed no signs of a proper and respectful treatment of the dead. After a huge campaign, publicity was drawn on the mass grave and the Mufti together with the government changed the appearance of the graves into individual graves, a fence was built around the cemetery and a new sign installed.
Anyway, if we speak of border victims in Greece we have also to refer to the border to Italy, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania. Usually, refugees trying to leave Greece towards northern Europe when not using the airports of the country try to leave either walking over the mountains in the north or hiding inside and under trucks that leave for Italy with ferry boats from Patras, Igoumenitsa and Corfu island. There is still nothing known about victims of the northern land borders but there are a couple of victims of the Adriatic Sea. There are at least two kinds of dangers at this border crossing: 1. all dangers that accrue from trying to jump on a truck, hiding inside or under a truck and 2. all dangers that arise from trying to cross the Adriatic in ship wrecks or small boats. Also the Greek-Italian border has been increasingly fortified as it becomes visible in the ports of Patras and Igoumenitsa, the high fences, the repressive controls and the violence of the authorities, some truck drivers and Neonazi groups in these hubs of transit migration.
A case of coast guard violence occurred in 2007 when the unaccompanied minor M. from Afghanistan was hiding beneath a truck in the port area. Some coast guard officers guarding the area hunted him. One of them took out a knife and started stabbing him under the truck without having a clear view. He stabbed him more than four times in the back and his feet. After his transfer to the hospital a coast guard officer came immediately to interrogate and frighten him without informing the doctors about his visit. The young man was terrified also after release when he was again interrogated by the authorities who tried to cover the incident.
Patras in this sense has become emblematic for accidents where refugees were hit by trucks or cars. By the end of 2008 an unaccompanied minor was consciously hit inside the port of Patras by a truck while he was trying to enter another truck. Witnesses saw the driver looking at the refugee who had his back turned towards him and increasing speed. Shortly after he hit the youngster strongly. H. was immediately transferred to hospital where he remained two weeks in coma. As by a miracle he survived. Today, he is waiting for the driver to be trialed before court for the attempt of murder. In 2010 another Afghan refugee was hit by a truck outside of the port. He died. Since than there have been another two cases of car accidents in Patras. Nevertheless, there have also been a couple of deaths due suffocation in trucks that have no air ventilation. Many of them never reach the public. A case like this was also referred to at the 17th of September 2010 in Kerkira island close to Igoumenitsa.
Finally, as referred to above refugees die also in the Adriatic sea when getting in distress at sea. Trying to avoid Greece a number of ship wrecks filled up with up to 200 refugees are trying to reach the Italian coast directly from Turkey. There are also increasing numbers of ship distress, when refugees enter these kind of overcrowded ship wrecks or small dinghies and speed boats on Greek territory directing towards the east of Italy. In the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011 a dozen of ship distress by refugee boats reached the public. Bad weather conditions brought the ships into trouble who then tried to find help by the Greek authorities. At the 16th of January 21 refugees got lost in the Adriatic sea. At the 21st of February 2011 again a ship got into distress, while 113 lives of the refugees could be saved in the last second and 3 disappeared in the sea.
At the 16th of March 2011 the 10th body of refugees from Bangladesh who had arrived at the coast of Crete coming from Libya was found. The refugees had jumped into the sea in order to avoid to be returned back and in order to get a chance to claim asylum in Greece. It remains unclear if they ever got this possibility. Some of them were deported immediately back.

The infomobile

... is like a “paper boat”. We chose this as a metaphor for what we want to create and for the situation of refugees and migrants in Greece. The paper boat is a folded boat able to swim – for a while. Then you have to build a new one to go on travelling. A paper boat is symbolic for the journey of life, vulnerable but in your own hands and to be recreated again and again. It is simple, but it carries many hopes and dreams. It can dance on a turbulent sea. It belongs to everybody. And it might become the small version – like a first draft – of a welcome-space.

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