Death on the Greek borders
- January 18, 2012
International attention is once again focussed on Greece as EU and IMF officials gather in Athens to work out a deal to prevent a potential debt default and a Greek exit from the eurozone, and protesters once again take to the streets. EU/IMF ‘reforms’ have already had a disastrous impact on large swathes of the Greek population, but the brutal unravelling of Greek society is unlikely to feature very highly in the calculations of politicians and economists.
One group of people will not receive any attention at all: namely the hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants and refugees who are stranded in a state of permanent illegality in Greece – a country that doesn’t want them but does not allow them to go to other European countries as a result of its role in the EU’s system of migratory controls.
In 2010 I made two visits to Greece to carry out research for my book on borders and migration. At that time Greece was the main route for undocumented migrants trying to get into Europe and many of them were trapped in an unbelievably difficult situation. Thousands were living in Athens, without work or legal status, where they faced increasing violence from neo-Nazi vigilantes and repression from the police.
Hundreds were camped out in the hills near the port of Igoumenitsa, trying to get to Italy. Others were shunted back and forth between some of the worst detention centres in Europe. Every day more migrants were crossing the Greek-Turkish border and some were dying in the attempt.
Repression and exclusion hasn’t been the only response of Greek society to the country’s undocumented migrants. A number of organizations and individuals have acted in solidarity with Greece’s migrants in various ways. They include Welcome To Europe (W2eu), an NGO which campaigns on behalf of migrants and refugees in Greece and describes itself as ‘ a grassroots movement that embraces migration and wants to create a Europe of hospitality’.
For the last two years two of W2eu’s members, Salinia Stroux and Regina Mantanika, have been driving back and forth across Greece in a van they call the ‘infomobile’, collecting information about undocumented migrants and refugees, and helping trace relatives who have drowned or disappeared trying to cross the country’s borders.
In August 2010 the infomobile discovered a mass grave near the village of Sidero at the Greek-Turkish border along the Evros river, where some 200 migrants who had died trying to cross the frontier were buried in an ‘Illegal Migrants Cemetery’ whose only monument was a bullet-ridden sign.
At first the Greek government denied the cemetery’s existence, but they were eventually obliged to acknowledge it. Since then the cemetery has got larger, as more migrants have drowned. Some of these deaths are named in a powerful and often unbearably moving report published by Infomobile Greece, entitled Lostatborder: A journey to the lost and the dead of the Greek borders, which is now available in English translation.
The underlying philosophy behind this chronicle is summed by the authors’ account of a memorial gathering on 30 August at the town of Provatonas , near the border to commemorate some of the migrants who died at the Evros river:
‘We want to give back a piece of dignity, to those whose lives disappeared right here into the senselessness of the European borders. We gathered for giving back a piece of dignity also to those who survived. A piece of dignity that was lost on the way to Europe, like the passports or the photographs showing the faces of the beloved ones that are carried away by the water. We want to give back a piece of dignity to all of us, who feel ashamed in the moment of these deaths because we failed in our attempt to stop this murderous regime and to create a welcoming Europe.’
The attendees at Provatonas also included relatives of some of those who had died, such as Tahera, an Afghan refugee in Hamburg, whose husband Bashir drowned in the Evros, and who before learning the details of his death had written to him:
My dear Bashir,
The world without you is no world, it is a world without
colours. Life has become very hard. I beg god, if you are
alive, please may He make you come back to me and to
our children very soon. And if really happened what I
am not able to find words for, that you will never come
back, I ask god for you to find a better place in paradise.
There is not a day or night passing when the children
don”t wake up or fall asleep thinking about you. They
miss their father very much and talk about you all the
time. My dear Bashir, please, I would like be close to
And John, from Kenya, whose wife Jane drowned in the Evros and was subsequently identified through DNA testing after being dug up from the Sidero cemetery. In his statement at the memorial John paid tribute to his dead wife and told the gathering:
My love for you is beyond measure and you will keep being between us forever. We will keep the flame by. We know your values and we will carry on the spirit. Will our lord help us to stand firm as a family. Our dear parents, brothers and sisters, our loving children, will always remember you. Relatives and friends will always remember and respect you. The papas of the fountain here Jane, in the same respect, have included you as a member for the Evros victims, but not as a last respect: May God bless your soul in a kind of peace. Amen. My appeal here, today, Ladies and Gentlemen is that just as we joined hands looking for Jane, we join hands making it possible to take Jane back home in Kenya to be buried in respect and dignity.
Lostatborder is another form of commemoration, a tragic but essential tribute to those who have died at another of Europe’s ‘murderous borders’, and a firsthand account of an ongoing humanitarian disaster which neither Greece nor the EU are keen to acknowledge.