One day at the end of October last year, Mohamad Hussain went to a café in the Istanbul neighbourhood of Aksaray to meet a smuggler. The smuggler said that, for €400 each, he would drive Mohamad and his family to Edirne, a city close to Turkey’s north-west frontier. From there, the smuggler said, he would find them safe passage into the European Union.
The Hussains were Kurds, from Qamishli in north-east Syria. Twelve of them – Mohamad, his mother, brother and sisters, and their cousins – had travelled to Istanbul together, and although it may not have felt so, they were among the lucky ones. Mohamad, a 24-year-old engineering student at university in Homs, had been lucky to escape injury when the Assad regime fired a rocket at the building next to his dorms. He was lucky that when, at the end of term in August, his bus back to Qamishli was ambushed by Islamist rebels, they only pretended they were going to cut off his head with a sword. When Mohamad’s mother insisted that this threat to her youngest son was the last straw, the family was lucky to sneak unnoticed across the Turkish border, even though it entailed wading through an open sewer.
The Hussains had relatives over the border, and so they could avoid being sent to one of the vast refugee camps Turkey operates on its south-eastern edge and where, they were told, “you’re stuck until the war ends”. They made it to Istanbul, where they rented a cramped apartment in Aksaray.
In this, too, they were lucky: just a few hundred metres away from where Mohamad met the smuggler, other Syrians were sleeping on camp beds under the arches of a Byzantine aqueduct. Since the autumn, thousands have been appearing destitute and starving in Istanbul’s parks, faster than the Turkish aid agencies can find them.
And the Hussains were lucky the smuggler didn’t simply steal the €400 per person he’d asked for; instead, he drove them to Edirne, then to a forest along the Bulgarian border, and said: “Walk that way.”
It was 3am when the Hussains arrived at the forest’s edge. They were joined by other refugees; there were 73 of them in total. At each stage of their journey they had been stripped of possessions, first their homes, then their savings, then all but the few clothes they could carry with them through the forest. The long walk through the wet autumn night would even destroy many people’s shoes. But the Hussains told themselves the sacrifices were worth it, because on the other side of that border lay Europe.
It was more than a month after that trip through the forest when I first met Mohamad. In early December, I had travelled to Turkey, and then Bulgaria, to find out what was happening to Syrian refugees trying to reach Europe. Of the two million who have fled abroad, the vast majority are living in three of Syria’s neighbours – Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. But the number reaching Europe has been increasing steadily since summer. Bulgaria, which estimates it had received up to 15,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2013, has been placing new arrivals in hastily opened “overflow” camps. It was at one of these, just outside the town of Harmanli, 30 miles north of the border with Turkey, that Mohamad approached me.
He had been at the camp, with scant access to the outside world, for 45 days by this point. Dressed in jeans and leather jacket, with neatly gelled hair, Mohamad had walked up to me and begun asking questions. Were Arsenal still top of the Premier League? Did I know that their attacking midfielder Mesut Özil was Kurdish? Was I a fan of Taylor Swift, the singer? Did I know how Mohamad could contact his uncle in Germany? Was Britain accepting any refugees? And most of all, did I know a way his family could get out of the camp? “You didn’t see here when it was raining,” he said. Around us, the wild, hilly countryside of southern Bulgaria was lit sharply in the winter sun. “A river of water. I would rather go back to Syria and be killed than stay here.”
We were standing on the steps of a derelict building at a Communist-era army base, now repurposed as a refugee camp. Inside, staff from Médecins Sans Frontières were busy setting up an emergency clinic. Outside, in front of us, stretched rows of canvas tents and metal shipping containers. At least 1,500 people, with more arriving daily, were crammed into a space no more than a few hundred metres square. Groups of children played, piling up and smashing the blocks from rubble that littered the ground, jumping back and forwards over broken wire fences, or hanging from rope swings strung between the few trees that hadn’t been chopped down for firewood. The camp was bordered by a concrete perimeter wall: low enough to hear passing cars and pedestrians, but not to see them.
It’s not easy to find your way across the forest that separates Bulgaria from Turkey. After wandering lost in the woods for hours, the Hussains’ group was found by border guards. “We knew we were in Europe,” Mohamad said, “because one of them had a flag with yellow stars on his shoulder.” Details of the procedure for receiving refugees arriving in Europe differ from country to country, but in essence the process is the same: they should be registered and interviewed, have their fingerprints taken and be given temporary documents while their claim is assessed. In theory, it should take only a few days.
Instead, Mohamad and his family were taken to a detention centre where their passports were confiscated. Syrians aren’t the only undocumented migrants who cross Bulgaria’s southern border; at the detention centre, said Mohamad, “They separated us into groups: the Syrians, the Afghans, the black Africans. Like animals.” The same segregation seemed to have taken place at Harmanli. Syrians, the largest group, occupied the tents and containers at the centre of the camp; a hundred or so Afghans lived in an old schoolhouse, smoky with fumes from wood-burning stoves and whose toilets leaked; a smaller group of African men – the ones I met were from Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Mali – was in another, smaller building. It had bars on the windows.
After seven days in detention, the Hussains were moved to Harmanli’s closed camp, its entry and exit controlled by the local police. When they arrived, there was no running water or electricity. Food deliveries were sporadic and the only medical care was an emergency visit by an ambulance. “If people wanted to leave to buy food or see a doctor,” Mohamad said, “the police asked for money.” Some of the refugees were sold bogus contracts by men who arrived at the gates posing as lawyers. The “contracts” promised accommodation in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia: those who handed over their money found they were driven there and dumped on the street. The Hussains wanted to leave and try a nearby camp where conditions were rumoured to be better, but their savings were running out and, without passports, they couldn’t be wired money by friends or relatives.
“Do you want to see the camp?” Mohamad asked me. It was late afternoon as we set off from the steps of the new clinic, and the winter sun was beginning to dip. Even in daylight, the temperature had barely risen above zero, and now people were lighting fires outside their tents to keep warm. The fires mark time here: lit once at sunset, they are rekindled in the early hours of the morning as people’s legs begin to freeze and they wake up. In the final hours of daylight, I saw people scavenging for tree stumps, fallen branches, cardboard boxes – whatever combustible material remained.
In mid-November, the refugees had protested, piling their mattresses outside and setting fire to them. Some of the women went on hunger strike. Now, conditions have begun to improve. A local catering firm, run by Syrians, provides one hot meal a day to the camp; the food is distributed swiftly and efficiently by the refugees themselves. Slowly, families were being moved from the tents into metal containers, which have electricity, water and heating. But when I visited, many were still stuck with just canvas and a wood-burning stove to protect them from the elements.
As we walked along a row of tents, Mohamad stopped to chat to a family huddled around a brazier for warmth. They were Kurds from Syria, too, but unlike the Hussains, who are Muslims, they followed the Yazidi religion, distantly connected to Zoroastrianism. A father-of-three – still so frightened that he asked me not to use his name – described how he had brought his children and his 75-year-old mother to Bulgaria after their home village was ethnically cleansed by Islamists of the Nusra Front, a branch of al-Qaeda. He suffered from diabetes; his mother had heart disease. “The pain is like a snake in my stomach,” said the old woman, complaining that the cold was making her condition worse.
Here, where until a few days before my visit the only contact with doctors was a single, urgent visit by the local ambulance, such common medical conditions can become dire emergencies. “This is more than just a health situation,” Stuart Zimble, the Médecins Sans Frontières head of mission who was in charge of setting up the clinic at Harmanli, later explained to me. “Health problems are being aggravated by the shortfall of the registration process at the border. The Bulgarian government were just not prepared.” There are women in their ninth month of pregnancy and cancer patients who can no longer get access to treatment, not to mention people afflicted by the psychological traumas of those who have fled war. When Eirini, the photojournalist who had come with me to take pictures of the camp, offered a sweet to one of the Afghan children, he just stared at her blankly.
When the Hussains left Istanbul at the end of October, their journey would have taken them along the highway that runs beside the Sea of Marmara and then up into the region of south-eastern Europe still known by its ancient name of Thrace. Today, it is where the Turkish, Greek and Bulgarian borders meet, marking the scramble for land that occurred after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. From 1945, it was where the Soviet and western spheres of influence collided. Now, another kind of struggle takes place: between migrants in search of refuge or a way to earn a living – or both – and an EU that increasingly wants to keep them out.
A few days before visiting Harmanli, I had travelled the same route as the Hussains from Istanbul, stopping off at Edirne, a capital in the Ottoman era whose centre is still dominated by three imposing medieval mosques. It has long been a last stop in Turkey for migrants but until recently their preferred destination was Greece, over the border formed by the River Evros. Most people would cross by night in inflatable boats; some would even swim. It was the most popular choice of route into the EU.
One evening I took a taxi from Edirne to the Evros border crossing a few miles outside town. It was dark when I crossed the no-man’s-land between the two roadside checkpoints, but just light enough to spot a few sandbagged gun encampments and a forbidding wire fence on the Greek side, stretching off into the distance. The road was empty, my passage held up only by a line of three geese that waddled through passport control before me. Waiting on the other side in an ageing blue Toyota was Panos, a resident of the nearby town of Orestiada whom I’d phoned earlier that day.
Panos, a young sales rep whose job takes him all around the region, is one of a handful of local people who openly opposed the construction of the fence I’d seen at the border. Six miles long and equipped with thermal sensors to detect movement, it was announced with much fanfare in August 2012 when Greece “sealed” its border with Turkey. “Most people around here support the fence,” Panos said, once we had found our way to a bar. “They aren’t affected by immigration themselves, but they see the migrants come, they hear on the television that immigration causes problems, then they see the fence and think: ‘This is dealing with the problem.’”
Many of those who crossed the Evros in recent years haven’t looked to Greece as their final destination; for them it was a first step towards refuge, work or family members in the wealthier northern European economies. For well over a decade, southern European countries have been asked to shoulder the burden of dealing with irregular migration: the 2003 Dublin II Regulation, for instance, made asylum claims the responsibility of the state through which the migrant first entered the EU. For the most part, that has meant Spain, Italy, Greece – and now Bulgaria.
Since the eurozone crisis of 2009, as European governments have grown ever more panicky about immigration, the pressure has intensified. Hundreds of officers from the EU border agency Frontex have been sent to patrol the Evros in the past few years. In August 2012, the Greek government redeployed almost 2,000 of its own police officers to the region. But the surge came at the very moment when the numbers fleeing Syria began to increase. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees believes there are now 838,000 in Lebanon, 567,000 in Jordan, 540,000 in Turkey, 207,000 in Iraq and 129,000 in Egypt, apart from the 6.5 million Syrians who are internally displaced.
The heightened security along Europe’s borders hasn’t stopped them coming but it has led to more deaths: many now choose to make a perilous crossing by boat from Turkey’s Mediterranean coast instead, and the trip is often fatal. Those who still attempt to cross the Evros find a harsh welcome.
Panos told me that on 12 November his group of activists received a call from someone in the border village of Praggi, saying that about 150 bedraggled Syrian refugees had arrived overnight. “By the time one of our group arrived they had gone,” he said. “The villagers said that the police had taken them away.” Nobody knows what happened to them after that; on 24 December the London Guardian quoted a local human rights lawyer saying the group had “lost all trace” of the refugees.
It is not an isolated incident. A report by the German NGO Pro Asyl, published in November, collected the accounts of 90 refugees who said they had been forcibly pushed back from Greece’s land and sea frontiers. Some of them said they had been forced back into the Evros. Pro Asyl argued this pointed to “systematic abuse of human rights” and estimated that 2,000 migrants could have been forced out in the course of a year. The Greek police deny that they operate a push-back policy; Frontex says it investigates reports of mistreatment whenever they arise. Soon, Syria’s Bulgarian border will be “sealed”, too. In November, the Bulgarians began building a fence of their own.
The village bar where Panos and I were sitting was empty except for a few old men reading newspapers. “This isn’t like a big city,” he said: “if I put my head up, everyone sees. When we protest outside the police station, the policemen inside are guys I went to school with.” He was growing angry. “But I can’t watch what’s happening and say nothing. Yesterday, they found a woman who had frozen to death in a field, just fifty metres over there.” He waved a hand towards the window of the bar. “How can I stay silent about this?”
Lazgin Musa sat back and took a drag on his cigarette while Mohamad translated for me. “And here is the paradise of Europe! We don’t even see any Europeans. We can’t leave the camp.” I was back for a second day in Harmanli and Mohamad was taking me to meet his cousins, then still living in one of the canvas tents. Thirty-one-year-old Lazgin, along with his younger brother Goders and their nephew Robar, were part of the group of 12 who had made the long journey here together from Qamishli.
Before the war the brothers had lived in Damascus, where Lazgin ran a clothing shop. Like many Kurds, whose culture and language have been suppressed for decades, they took part in the peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations that swept Syria in 2011. “We were protesting even before then,” said Lazgin, a little indignantly. “But when weapons got into this revolution, we said, ‘We are not with this revolution.’” As popular unrest tilted towards civil war, they held back.
Their fears were justified. First, Lazgin said, the conflict destroyed their livelihood. War drove his European customers away. The price of food shot up as the Syrian currency lost its value. Then, as fighting broke out between the Kurds, who wanted greater autonomy for their territory, and Islamist rebel groups, their lives were threatened on two fronts. “We escaped from Islamists, not from the regime,” Lazgin said, as he stoked the stove that sat in the middle of the tent, its flue poking out of a hole in the roof. “If Assad wins, he’ll kill everybody who was against him. If an Islamist group kills Assad there will be thousands of Islamist groups fighting each other. It will be like Afghanistan.”
Syria’s refugee crisis already compares in scale to that of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Millions who have fled their country are now resigning themselves to a long exile, looking not just for safe haven, but a way to earn a living. Yet by and large the doors of European countries have remained closed. Since the conflict started, only 10,000 refugees have been resettled formally in western countries – and that includes the United States. In December, a report by Amnesty International said the EU had “miserably failed” to provide support.
The excuses range in tone: some politicians, such as the Italian foreign minister Emma Bonino, say that harsh restrictions are necessary because there might be terrorists among the refugees. Bulgarian television channels have focused on the cost of accommodation – or on the dirt and chaos at the camps, implying that Syrians are bringing disease with them. And the British government, while pointing to the large sums it is donating to humanitarian efforts, says it thinks refugees would be better off in Syria’s neighbouring countries.
This last claim is questionable. It is widely accepted that Jordan and Lebanon, which have taken in more than a million refugees between them, are struggling to cope, but the pressure is also starting to show in Turkey, which claims to have spent more than $2bn on relief efforts so far. The Turkish government was quick to set up camps along the south-eastern border with Syria which are now home to roughly 200,000 refugees. But up to 500,000 more live elsewhere in the country. “There’s a perception that Turkey has less of a need because it’s spent so much money,” Oktay Durukan of Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly, an Istanbul-based human rights group, told me. “That’s the wrong message to give.” UNHCR is calling on European countries to keep their borders open.
Bulgaria, one of the poorest EU member countries, complains that it has not received enough support to deal with the rising numbers of refugees. The economic downturn has sparked a political crisis there; in February last year the government was brought down by widespread street protests, and the unrest continues. A far-right party, Ataka (“attack”), is now the fourth largest in parliament, and it has been at the forefront of complaints about the presence of refugees. Other European states could help relieve the pressure. So far, they are largely choosing not to do so.
The refugees know they are being talked of as a burden, and it is something they find bitterly ironic. Mohamad wants to continue his studies in Germany, or even Britain. His brother has a degree in business management and his sister is a qualified psychotherapist. Another of his cousins, Jazia, works as a translator at the camp clinic, using the English she says she learned from watching American movies on TV. “Europe needs people from the Middle East,” Lazgin said. “Europeans stay single; they have one, maybe two children. Middle East people are all married and have many children by the time they are our age. We are a young society.”
Lazgin was half joking, but the mention of children reminded him of something. Another of his brothers was at a camp outside Sofia, with a baby son. “If you go there, give his child a kiss from me.”
When systems fail, we have a choice: to accept the failure, or to take action. Many Bulgarians have been shocked by the images of refugees they have seen on television. A weekly delivery of clothes, toys and other supplies arrives at Harmanli – but it is not the usual donation from aid agencies. These are second-hand goods, gathered from around the country, collected in Sofia and driven down to Harmanli in battered old family cars.
It started as a Facebook group, Friends of the Refugees. Then an enterprising developer set up a website where you can track donations as they happen on a live map. But without the intervention of political leaders, will its efforts be enough?
After we left his cousins’ tent, Mohamad invited me back to his container. The metal box must have been no more than ten metres wide and five deep, yet inside it something approaching everyday family life was going on. In two cramped rooms, with a bathroom and a space for cooking, his mother fussed around, tidying up after two of Mohamad’s young cousins, both toddlers. It was warm and brightly lit. A friend knocked at the door. “He was our neighbour in Qamishli and now he lives in the container next to us,” Mohamad said. As I was getting ready to leave, another of Mohamad’s cousins joked that I should leave my passport behind. A UK passport, like those of the US and Finland, guarantees entry to the highest number of countries without any need for a visa. I didn’t know that – but then I’ve never needed to.
On 10 January, I spoke to Mohamad by phone. More containers had arrived and people were no longer living in tents. The Hussains had spent their first Christmas in Europe at Harmanli. On New Year’s Eve, someone had set up a PA system. “They played Kurdish and African dances,” Mohamad said. “But it was too cold to stay outside for long.”
After more than two months, the Hussains finally had their fingerprints taken. They are still waiting for their documents to arrive so they can leave the camp.
Daniel Trilling is the editor of New Humanist magazine