Five years ago, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled from Syria and elsewhere to the countries of the European Union, sparking what was widely described as a “migrant crisis.” Today, another influx of people may be coming as the humanitarian situation in northern Syria worsens. Since 2011, Turkey has absorbed more than four million migrants from its southern neighbor. Many of these refugees aspired to continue on to Europe. But in 2016, Ankara signed an agreement with the EU that pledged to curb migrant flows west in exchange for six billion euros of funding. Four years later, however—with his adventures in Syria and Libya faltering and the economy flagging—Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has deployed a weapon he’s kept in his arsenal since signing the 2016 deal. Ankara has reneged on the deal and allowed refugee flows to Europe once again. Erdogan’s aim, presumably, is to force Brussels’s hand into supporting his incursion into Idlib in Syria.

By March 1, as many as 30,000 migrants clustered on the shores of the Aegean and the banks of the Evros River that forms the land boundary between Turkey and Greece. Battalions of Greek soldiers rushed to the border.

For the last two weeks, people trying to cross into Greece have sparred with security forces in Kastanies, a village on the border with Turkey. According to local officials, Greek authorities have rebuffed tens of thousands of people attempting to enter Europe and arrested around 300 who managed to get through. The grim scenes in this small town reveal how stark and uncompromising Europe’s border controls have become. The EU is shutting its doors, disregarding its international legal commitments to those fleeing conflict, and failing to live up to the values allegedly at its core.

THE BORDER TOWN

On March 2, soon after the clashes began, I took a bus to Kastanies, a village as far away from Athens as one can get on the Greek mainland. International attention tends to focus on Lesvos and other Aegean islands—where many refugees and migrants have arrived since 2015—but rarely makes its way up to the rugged borderland of Thrace. Camouflaged military bunkers, dating to when the region sat along the frontlines of the Cold War, dotted the countryside. My bus ran parallel to the Via Egnatia, the old Roman highway across the Balkans, before it hooked north toward Bulgaria. To the east, stray backpacks and clothing, left behind by people who had crossed into Europe in the previous months, littered the banks of the Evros. Greek authorities claim that more than 1,000 migrants have forded the Evros and entered Greece since the beginning of the year.

Over the previous days, Kastanies had drawn officials from Athens and Brussels. Guards belonging to Frontex, the EU’s border agency, had flown in from Zagreb and Warsaw, along with journalists from Berlin and London and far-right activists from across the continent. The residents of Kastanies had swept the streets and gussied up its public buildings with fresh coats of white paint. Close to a shuttered border post leading to the Turkish city of Edirne, the United Nations had pitched a small blue tent where officials voiced their concerns about the violence unfolding just meters away along the river.  

Just east of the town, Greek forces continued to hold the line against those trying to cross over. Clashes had broken out in the thin strip of no man’s land between the two national borders. Police sprayed migrants with water tainted with blue ink to make them easier to identify if they later attempted to ford the river into Greece. Refugees retaliated by lobbing tear-gas canisters, evidently taken from (or perhaps provided by) Turkish border police. When night fell, Greek helicopters lit up the Evros’s banks with searchlights. The next day, police patrolled villages demanding passports from anyone who appeared non-Greek. Intermittently, along the highways, I passed officers holding migrants whom they had caught hiking west toward Thessaloniki.  

Greek security officers patrol near the border crossing with Turkey at Kastanies, Greece, March 2020
Florian Goga / Reuters

By the time I reached Kastanies, these tensions had already led to the alleged shooting of a refugee. According to Turkish state TV, Greek soldiers killed a Syrian man on March 2 who’d attempted to cross the river. Greek authorities dismissed the claim as “fake news,” but British investigators have found evidence that, at the very least, the possibility of the incident cannot be dismissed. Their findings raised the prospect that beyond killing a refugee, Greece may have also tried to cover it up. Within a day, Ankara appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, filing a complaint against Athens about the alleged shooting.

Turkey faces hundreds of pending cases of its own at that court. Yet what at the beginning of March had seemed farcical—for example, Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlut Cavusoglu haughtily claiming that Greece had an obligation to respect “international human rights”—became less and less ironic as the crisis unfolded. At Kastanies, Greece’s actions began to reflect a moral bankruptcy. A group of Afghans and Syrians returned to Turkey on March 7 claiming that Greek security forces had beaten them with rods and stripped them of their clothes. Along the Evros, Greek vigilantes had begun patrolling the countryside at night with hunting dogs, unimpeded by the local authorities. And a March 10 investigation by The New York Times revealed the existence of an undisclosed detention center along the Evros where Greek police had secretly herded migrants whom they had nabbed crossing the river, only to then expel them to Turkey without due legal process.

“HOW DID YOU GET HERE?”

On March 3, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis arrived in Kastanies, accompanied by Prime Minister Andrej Plankovic of Croatia and ranking members of the European Commission, to express support for Greece’s border guards. An hour before their helicopter touched down in the town, I saw four policemen hop off their motorcycles and stop two young men on the town’s main street. “Over here! Sit over here!” they yelled in English. Over the previous two days, the police had apprehended 40-odd migrants, almost all of them in the countryside. These two men had attempted to walk straight through Kastanies in the middle of the afternoon, perhaps hoping to look inconspicuous by ambling through the town in broad daylight. 

“How did you get here?” a police officer asked. He pointed to the ground. 

“River,” said one of the two men, who wore jeans and a gray sweatshirt and had a shock of bleached blond hair. He made a breaststroke motion with his arms and begged for water. The police brought two bottles. 

“Where are you from?” 

“Syria.” 

“So you came here illegally, then. Without papers.” 

The police hustled the men into a white van that had pulled up to the sidewalk. They put them inside and padlocked the door. “I don’t know what happens to them now,” an officer said as he hopped back on his motorcycle. 

If the official Greek registry of arrests released the next day is credible, the men were not from Syria. The 98 people on the registry hailed from other countries, ranging from Pakistan to Somalia. For many in Greece and elsewhere, this detail points to the larger difficulty for Greece and other receiving countries in reckoning with the refugee influx: the supposed phenomenon of economic migrants masquerading as refugees.

SHUTTING THE DOOR

But if anything, the incident on the streets of Kastanies actually pointed to Europe’s own rhetorical acrobatics on the “refugee crisis”: the definition of a refugee, and who is entitled to asylum, has been subject to more or less arbitrary changes since the end of the Cold War. A generation ago, it was important for those seeking asylum in Europe to demonstrate that they faced political persecution. In 1985, a year Western Europe received more asylum applications than it did last year, tens of thousands of people from Poland, Romania, and Yugoslavia were granted refuge solely on the basis of having lived in states deemed totalitarian by Western Europe. Their flights into democratic Europe served as symbolic victories in the Cold War. But in the 1990s this changed. European countries became disinterested in political asylum and made its process increasingly stringent.

Even today, as EU officials continue to pay lip service to the idea of asylum as a “fundamental” right, the last five years have underscored the opposite: the respect for asylum in Europe is entirely dependent on the political contingencies of the day, as opposed to any abstract homage to human rights. In 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared Europe’s borders open to refugees. A year later, when the political goodwill for that decision had expired, the continent found a justification for not allowing the entry of refugees in the shape of the EU-Turkey deal that effectively bribed Erdogan to be Europe’s bouncer. Today, with that arrangement now dead, Europe has arrived at another explanation for why refugees cannot now be let through its borders: the sanctity of Greek national security. The European Commission has anointed Greece—the member state it not so long ago threatened to drop from its ranks—with the right to uphold its borders and national sovereignty.

Refugees who reach Lesvos now commonly have to prove with exacting detail that their lives were at risk where they came from—demonstrating not just that they came from Syria, for instance, but that they came from particularly dangerous parts of Syria. In February 2016, a month before Turkey agreed to limit the flow of migrants through its territory to Europe, I walked the quays of the port of Piraeus near Athens, packed with arriving Iraqis and Syrians. They rushed to show the arbiters of their asylum evidence of bodily injury—burns, for instance—to make their claims more credible. For many refugees, brandishing such injuries has become the difference between life in Europe and the purgatory of an Aegean detention center.  

European leaders have been inconsistent on the matter of refugees.

The rhetoric of European leaders has also betrayed a serial inconsistency on the matter of refugees. “That some countries refuse to accept any refugees is not on,” Merkel claimed in 2017. “That contradicts the spirit of Europe. We’ll overcome that. It will take time and patience but we will succeed.” But after the crisis at Greece’s border overwhelmed headlines across Europe in the last few weeks, it was Merkel’s own Christian Democratic Union party that led the March 5 vote in Germany’s parliament against airlifting 5,000 refugee children stranded in Greece to other European states.

In Kastanies, these differences between the institutions constituting the “international community” were on full display. At one end of the village, a UN spokeswoman summoned journalists around her to declare that Greece didn’t have the right to stop asylum seekers at its borders. “Let me repeat,” the spokeswoman said slowly, giving everyone time to write down her words. “What is happening now is illegal. You cannot turn away legitimate asylum seekers at your borders. This is a violation of international law.”

But at the other end of the village, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen underscored what was effectively the opposite of the UN’s message. She insisted that Greece had every right to protect its borders and rattled off an aid package of military equipment and personnel that the EU would supply: seven patrol vessels, two helicopters, an airplane, three thermovision vehicles, and 100 Frontex guards. Greece was Europe’s “shield,” von der Leyen concluded, and “those who seek to test Europe’s unity will be disappointed.”  

As a major humanitarian crisis heightens in Syria, the EU is only hardening its stance, waging a symbolic battle in Kastanies, whose foot soldiers now include the far right. Von der Leyen’s rhetoric was a boon to all those aspiring to see events on Greece’s borders through a civilizational lens. On March 4, bands of neo-Nazis began driving from Germany and Austria toward the Greek border. Leaders of far-right parties raced to Kastanies to hand-feed populist fodder to their voters. “If I wanted to go to Germany, I would need papers, right? Yes or no?” Kyriakos Velopoulos, the leader of the bluntly named Greek Solution party, told me and a group of journalists after flying in from Athens to assure local Greeks that his party cared for the plight of those on the border. “Germany, France, the United States—they need to know that Christian Europe begins right here.”

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