Monday, 17 March 2014

"If you are illegal, you're just a shadow"

17 March 2014

So this has been the first day of my research. I would not say that I have been exceptionally lucky. Only some of what I hoped to accomplish got done, but at least there is hope. But I’ll come to that later. Let me first tell you about the intricacies of this day, which has indeed been rather eventful…and tiring, awfully tiring. After a short night of terrible sleep, I found a copyshop pretty much straight away, and printed lots of consent forms for just €1. A true bargain. I also had a nice conversation with a Masters-student who studied architecture in Edirne. I hopped into my rental car, and left Edirne for the Turkish-Bulgarian border. And what a border it was – a veritable fortress. I passed the frontier checkpoint without any problems, but at the Turkish customs checkpoint they realised that I didn’t have proper papers for my car, but only a car rental agreement. Unfortunately this agreement contained a clause that forbade me from leaving Turkey. The customs officer even called the rental car company, which very much made clear that their vehicles have to remain within the country. Thus I was turned back at the border. I was told to go to the border police to cancel the exit stamp in my passport. After a confusing drive across the border checkpoint, I made it to the police station. I made use of the opportunity to try and get an interview, but without success. Nobody spoke English. I drove back into Turkey, parked my car, and made up my mind to hitchhike! As an experienced backpacker, walking across border checkpoints was something that I was used to, but I have never had to show my passport as many times on a single day as I have had to do today. The checkpoint was indeed weird: there were section for border control, sections for customs, and just sections for ‘controls’. What exactly they were controlling I don’t know – usually it sufficed to wave the pretty burgundy red of an EU-passport at them.

Border TR-BG
 About half an hour later, at around 10.45, I had made it across the checkpoint. Determined not to leave from this odyssey empty-handed, I introduced myself to about everyone I met who was wearing a uniform. The problem is, that if you don’t speak the local language – Turkish – people act as though you don’t exist. They just don’t take you seriously. You can say whatever you want – most border policemen won’t even try to understand you. Nevertheless, I had one extremely interesting encounter. When I asked for interviews at the Bulgarian border police, a guy was sunbathing outside who wore a blue armband with an EU flag on it. I asked whether he speaks German (in Bulgaria, most of the older generation seem to know some German), to which he ironically replied, “A little.” I could tell immediately that he was Austrian. Upon closer inspection his armband turned out to say ‘Frontex’ in some pretty bold letters. He wasn’t ready to be interviewed, although I assured him that everything he says will remain anonymous (he claimed that he was forbidden from being interviewed). Nevertheless, he gave me some pretty useful information. He volunteered for Frontex and according to him, problems related to immigration in Bulgaria are ‘minimal’. Of course, his mere presence states the opposite… He pointed out that problems with refugees exist not in Bulgaria, but in Sicily and on Greek islands. If I wanted to speak with someone, I should go to the border protection command in Svilengrad.

Welcome to Bulgaria
Well, this is precisely where I was headed next. Hitchhiking to Svilengrad was easy. I was picked up by a Bulgarian minibus that was full of women. Only the drivers were men. In fact, one of the drivers, Mustafa, used to sell Turkish delicacies in Paunsdorf Center, a well-known shopping mall in Leipzig. Funny to meet a guy like that 2000km from home. I was served a chocolate bar, water and Fanta as we drove past a queue of hundreds of lorries that stretched on for many miles. Finally they dropped me off at a junction near Svilengrad. The contrast between Svilengrad and Edirne was shocking. The city appeared to be in severe decline. Abandoned industrial areas, rusty fences, potholed roads – those were my first impressions. The presence of vast amounts of horse carriages in many ways made me feel like a time traveller. I was wondering whether this is what refugees expected when they crossed the external border of the European Union. I had spaghetti for lunch at a pretty neat restaurant for €1.30. At the town hall I managed to arrange for my first interview. It was not with the local expert on asylum questions, but with what appeared to be the only person who spoke English.

Although the person I spoke to was not an expert, it was nevertheless a very insightful conversation. Svilengrad does indeed have a problem with ‘irregular immigration’. My interviewee, Petar, is one of the people responsible for managing projects funded with European money. Petar[1] was of the opinion that the Bulgarian government gives more to those migrants than it gives to its own people. While refugees receive beds and shelter, many Bulgarians do not possess such luxuries. Petar’s explanation of the sudden influx of thousands of Syrians into Bulgaria is that the Bulgarian government is in the mood to just give to everybody, while countries like Greece and Turkey make clear that refugees are unwanted. He confirmed that refugees are a hot problem in the public debate, although he was not politically-minded, and thus unable to speak about the issue in more detail. What Petar did tell me though, is that some families are afraid of letting their kids play in the streets out of fear of the migrants. After all, one never knows who these people are. They may be rich, having escaped a war, or they may be criminals. Petar told me about the Pastrogor open centre that was just out of town. He said that the place was overcrowded, and told me a story of a clothes collection that had been organised by some residents of Svilengrad. Everybody participated, and a whole truck full of clothes was gathered for the Syrians of Pastrogor. When the donations were delivered, the refugees refused to take them. They said that they did not need clothes, but beds and heaters. Petar interpreted this as them being ungrateful. There are stories going around of thefts, although they have not been reported in the media. Petar was unaware of there being major problems in Greece. He called Dublin a stupid rule, although he was not very well-informed about the exact nature of the regulation.
Poster I saw in the Svilengrad border police station

Before leaving for Pastrogor, I had another look around town. I found the central border police station, and made some interesting discoveries. The first thing that struck me was a poster in the police station that read, “If you’re illegal, you’re just a shadow. The legal way, is the only way.” It had an EU flag printed underneath. Clearly immigration was an issue here. I spoke to a police officer, who, although not wanting to be interviewed, told me about the process of applying for asylum in Bulgaria. The first thing that happens is that you come to Svilengrad’s border police station to be interviewed. I asked to speak to the person responsible, but she was on holiday. After Svilengrad, detention follows in Lyubimets, another town about half an hour away. Once the concerned person’s identity has been established, they may reside on Pastrogor. The border police officer advised me to visit both the open centre in Pastrogor, and the detention centre in Lyubimets. For the latter I would however need authorisation.

Pastrogor open centre
It turned out that authorisation is required for visiting Pastrogor as well, which is not that open after all. I had to take a cab to get to the place (€4), which was right in the middle of nowhere. My first impression was very good. In fact, from the outside, this looked like the best-taken care of refugee camp I had ever seen. The grass for green, the courtyard was tidy, and the walls were freshly painted, pleasantly orange. I found out later that the camp was just five months old. Yet again, English was difficult to get by with. After trying to introduce myself unsuccessfully, I was forwarded to the camp’s chief of security. He made clear that I could not just walk in and say hello, refusing also to introduce me to the camp’s residents. He referred me to an agency in Sofia, giving me their address, and asking me to leave. He had no problem if I spoke to refugees outside the camp’s boundaries, which, by the way, were secured with barbed wire.

Me being a pale guy with brighter-than-usual hair however, I got the residents’ attention pretty quickly. Not a minute passed before I spoke to a guy who asked me where I was from. I conversed with him using all the Arabic I could think of before he called a friend of his who spoke better English. He also lived in Pastrogor, and happen to just get out of a taxi with his wife and lots of groceries. Petar was right. Most people at the camp was well-dressed, probably better-dressed than most Bulgarians. At a first glance, one did get the impression that the residents of Pastrogar were well taken care of. The guy who got out of the taxi spoke very good English, and after introducing myself as a PhD student from Liverpool, he was more than happy to speak to me – tomorrow. Still, this was a start. I took his number and told him that I would call before I come.

I decided that I should get back to Edirne. I was somewhat frustrated at the staff’s refusal to help me, and it was getting late. Hitchhiking next to a refugee camp in the middle of nowhere was easier than I thought, and an elderly man brought me to the road that leads to the Turkish border. From there I was picked up by a Bulgarian customs officer who spoke some German, but not enough to tell me his opinion on immigration. I was back in Turkey pretty quickly. As I walked to my rental car, I was a whole series of German and Austrian ambulances which had ‘Project Syria’ printed on them. I am guessing that they are going to the war zone to provide some medical assistance.

Bridge across the pretty mighty Evros river
My efforts to enter Bulgaria via automobile were unsuccessful, but that did not necessarily mean that I could not enter Greece in this way. The Greek border is even closer to Edirne, being literally a couple of hundred meters away from the city centre. I drove across the Evros/Maritsa river, and I became instantly aware that this would be a nearly impenetrable obstacle for any refugee trying to get to Europe. The Evros forms the vast majority of the Greco-Turkish border. Only a small part, right next to Edirne, is an unnatural land border. The border checkpoint between Greece and Turkey was very different. Controls were minimal, but the whole area was highly militarised. The notorious fence scars the landscape. It is about two meters high and stretches on as far as the eye can see. On both sides it is secured by military bases, which are themselves surrounded by barbed wire. Upon seeing that river and that fence, it became blatantly clear why Bulgaria was suddenly experiencing an influx of refugees – it did not possess frontier fortifications of this type. Once again I was turned away at the border because of my car being rented. A chat with the Turkish border police revealed that there were no problems with immigration here, and that instances of asylum applications were rare at most. I am guessing that this situation is rather new – why else would this border be more militarised than a Cold War frontline. Maybe the guy was just making fun of me.

Abandoned Kastaniés train station
As I went for a walk into Greece I was barely asked once for my passport. I saw Turkish soldiers playing volleyball, and Greek soldiers playing basketball. Kastaniés, the Greek village on the border, appeared a lot tidier than anything else I have seen so far. I strolled through the village, which blazed with freshly mowed lawns and neatly cut hedges. I walked to the train station, hoping to get a good look at the border fence. I was disappointed though. The station lay abandoned, and as the sun set, I could only make out the fence around the military base – the fence around the fence. I made my way back to Turkey.

I have a meeting in Pastrogor tomorrow. Something to look forward to, and something to place my hopes in.

[1] Name has been changed.

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