orders are often tense, abrasive places, but the remote Greek prefecture of Evros, near the Greece–Turkey land border, is tenser than most. Situated in the northeast of the country at the geographical frontier between Europe and Asia, most of the border is marked by the Evros River, which forms a natural barrier between Greece and Turkey for more than 200 kilometres before it breaks into a swampy delta and comes out in the Aegean near the port of Alexandroupoli.
This natural frontier straddles one of the world’s most militarised borders. For decades, the Greek and Turkish armies have warily watched each other across the river and taken occasional pot shots at each other. Until recently, much of the border was sown with antipersonnel mines, and soldiers and military vehicles are a ubiquitous presence in the region.
Today, the prospect of a Turkish invasion has receded, but a new kind of confrontation is quietly unfolding in this tranquil rural landscape of gentle hills, cultivated plains and nondescript towns. For the Evros prefecture is now the main transit route for undocumented immigrants seeking entry into Greece and Western Europe. Some come across the Evros in inflatable boats provided by people smugglers. Others simply walk across the 13-kilometre strip between Kastanies and the village of Vyssa, where the Evros curves briefly into Turkish territory near the former Ottoman capital of Edirne.
Dozens of people have drowned crossing the Evros. In June last year, 16 bodies were found floating in the river when their boats capsized in two separate incidents
This confrontation isn’t immediately obvious. Just outside Kastanies, the Ardas River bay is one of the prettiest spots in mainland Greece. In summer, its dense woodlands, grassy banks and lowered water levels attract Greek families for picnics and leisurely lunches at the nearby Café Artisio. By night, a different kind of visitor passes through these woods and fields. Afghans, Iraqis, Georgians, Pakistanis, Palestinians and Somalis have all crossed the border in recent months, bringing their few possessions, some US dollars and their dreams of work or safety.
‘Every night there are people coming through here,’ says Stelios, the owner of the Artisio. ‘I’ve heard that some of them are very aggressive. They infect the police with illnesses.’ Stelios doesn’t say what these illnesses are, but the numbers at least aren’t exaggerated. According to local police in Evros, 7,000 migrants have been detained at the border since floodwaters receded in January last year – a 30 per cent increase on the same period the previous year.
geopolitic a l t ens i ons The Evros border is a dangerous frontier to cross without a passport. Between 1999 and 2008, at least 66 migrants were killed straying into minefields and another 42 maimed and injured. In the past two years, these incidents have ceased, as a result of de-mining operations carried out by the Greek military, but the border remains a hazardous natural barrier. Dozens of people have drowned crossing the Evros. In June last year, 16 bodies were found floating in the river when their boats capsized in two separate incidents.
These incursions have added a new element of insecurity to an area that is already charged with geopolitical tensions. Photographer Steven Greaves and I experienced these sensitivities at first hand when we drove into the restricted military area of Kastanies, hoping to photograph one of the remaining minefields. We found no minefields, but as we were leaving the zone, we were stopped by a Greek military jeep. The soldiers weren’t mollified by our explanation that we were journalists researching a story about illegal immigration at the
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38 www.geographical.co.uk february 2011