Refugees turn to old smuggling routes due to the impossibility of crossing the Aegean

Published 05/04/2018 12:01:10 CET

GRECOTURCA BORDER, 4 May. (Reuters / EP) -

Two years after the sea route between Turkey and the Greek islands was closed, more and more refugees are choosing to re-use an old smugglers' route that traverses the Greco-Turkish border by land.

Only in April, at least 2,900 people have arrived in Greece crossing this area and crossing the river Evros that divides both. That figure is equivalent to half of the arrivals that occurred in 2017, according to estimates of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

For the Greek communities that live around the Evros, in the north of the country, it is common to see parents carrying their children and widows following railroads.

"You do not send us home, we are fleeing from a war," Maya, a 28-year-old girl from the Syrian city of Aleppo, pleaded. When she spoke with the Reuters team, her father, her sister, her six children and she had been walking for 13 hours.

Police and local authorities have expressed concern that this route will become popular and have said that an increase in arrivals usually means an increase in hostilities in Iraq or Syria.

Nearly one million refugees arrived from Turkey to the Greek islands in 2015, but that route was closed when the European Union and the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reached an agreement to reduce the flow of migrants in March 2016.

Under the agreement, those who want to reach the Greek islands have to meet the requirements to receive political asylum or risk being deported to Turkey. More than 15,000 people are trapped on five islands, waiting for the Greek authorities to resolve their asylum claims.

Initially, the agreement does not seem to include the terrestrial grecoturca border, but a member of UNHCR has warned that directly assuming that it does not include it can cause the flow of immigrants to be diverted to this area.

Members of several NGOs and police officers have explained that refugees arriving through the river Evros are registered by the authorities and that they receive a three-month residence permit. Theoretically, refugees can move across the country, unlike those who wait for their requests to be resolved on the islands.

A boat takes between five and six minutes to cross the Evros River, very little compared to the cross-sea between Greece and Turkey. However, the river can also be treacherous: in 18 years, 1,500 people have died trying to cross it. In the first months of 2018 there have been 12 deaths, an increase over the eight that took place during the whole of 2017.

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