By Andrés Mourenza and Lola Hierro, El País
Flames burn a forest in Sykorrahi, in the northeast of the Evros region of Greece, on August 23, 2023. ACHILLEAS CHIRAS (AP).
The Greek province of Evros, where at least 18 migrants were found burned to death Tuesday in a wave of wildfires ravaging the country, was already a hell on earth for those fleeing their countries in search of a better life in Europe. For more than a decade, countless cases of abuses and violations of the most basic rights against people attempting to cross the territory — where the homonymous river serves as a natural border between Greece and Turkey — have been reported. Beatings, forced deportations, rapes, and illegal detentions have been recorded by human rights organizations. But if the situation for people attempting to reach EU territory was already dangerous, now it has become considerably worse: since the most recent fire broke out last Saturday, groups of local residents have organized themselves into militias to hunt down migrants. It is not the first time such practices have been witnessed, but tensions have been stoked further by the popular belief that they are to blame for the fires.
The chief prosecutor of the Greek Supreme Court, Georgia Adilini, on Wednesday ordered a double investigation to look for possible evidence of “an organized plan” to provoke the fire — although the police later stated that it had been caused by lightning — and to discover more details about the “alarming phenomena of violence” against migrants and incitements to “racist pogroms.”
These investigations have arisen following a video shared on social networks on Tuesday in which a man triumphantly displays the result of what he considers his hunting booty. The man, who is also the alleged author of the recording, opens the hatch of a trailer attached to a van to display an undetermined number of captured men looking confusedly at the camera. Their captor refers to these people as “pieces,” claims there are 25 of them and that he has “hunted them down” because they are responsible for the fires. “The mountains are full of these,” he adds.
“Part of the population thinks that the fires are the fault of the migrants and that’s why they chase them,” explains Lefteris Papayannakis, director of the Greek Institute for Refugees, in an interview with EL PAÍS. “They function as a militia; they arrest them on their own account and use violence against them.”
The owner of the vehicle and suspected author of the video, a resident of the province of Albanian origin, and two other people of Greek nationality were arrested Wednesday. But Vassilis Kerasiotis, director of the NGO HIAS Greece and a lawyer specializing in migration, says that these militias are far from a one-off phenomenon and are organized with absolute impunity because the authorities prefer to look the other way.
“There is tolerance on the part of the authorities, that’s why they feel they can freely publicize these criminal acts,” he adds. “Obviously, when a criminal act occurs, the authorities must react. That’s why they have arrested them,” he insists.
“It’s frightening how openly accepted hostility against migrants is in a certain part of society,” says a spokesman for Alarm Phone, an organization dedicated to receiving messages from migrants in distress throughout the Mediterranean area and passing them on to the relevant authorities.
Appeals to chase and capture migrants are spread through messages on social networks such as Facebook, X or TikTok. The video of the Albanian citizen showing the result of his “hunt” was uploaded to a channel on the Viber messaging network, with 240 members. Another recording released Wednesday shows a man dressed in military attire instructing several dozen residents of Evros to organize another pogrom. “Whoever can, start patrolling [...] But I’m going to ask you, no guns, no knives, or you’re going to get in trouble. It’s illegal. You will be arrested,” he says.
Before the video of the illegally detained migrants appeared, Paris Papadakis, deputy of the far-right Greek Solution party for the province of Evros, published another inflammatory tirade in which he accused the migrants of “obstructing the work of firefighters” and of starting the blaze.
Several left-wing MPs have called for Papadakis to be investigated by the Greek Parliament’s Ethics Committee. In his publication, the far-right MP described the situation as a “war” and called on his fellow citizens to organize raids to “arrest” illegal migrants “in the same way as in March 2020,” during the Greek-Turkish border crisis, when the government of Ankara facilitated the arrival of tens of thousands of migrants on the frontier with Evros. At that time, some locals organized themselves into militias to assist the police and the Greek Army in their defense of the border.
Hiding for fear of deportations
Evros was the main entry route to Greece and Europe until 2015 and 2016, when migrants started using boats to reach Aegean islands such as Chios or Lesbos. However, the transit of refugees has never stopped. So far in 2023, around 3,700 migrants have entered Greece via the land route, compared to some 6,000 in total in 2022, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). It is possible that the numbers of those who have made it into Greek territory via Evros is in fact much higher. “More than 250,000 illegal entries were prevented at the Evros border during 2022,” the Ministry of Citizen Protection said in a statement. Some of that number probably crossed the border but were illegally deported by the Greek authorities, a very common practice in the area despite the fact that it violates both Hellenic and European laws. Various NGOs and human rights organizations have collected testimonies and evidence of about 400 such incidents during the last six years, in which some 20,000 migrants were illegally deported, in most cases with violent methods and having been stripped of their money and belongings.
Between Tuesday and Wednesday, Alarm Phone passed on alerts about four groups comprising hundreds people trapped in the area affected by the wildfires: three of them on islets in the river and another in a wooded area near the town of Sufi. “The fact that in the face of a fire people are hiding in the forest instead of trying to get to safety gives an idea of the need they feel to hide for fear of deportations,” Vassilis points out.
The Alarm Phone spokesman explains that the authorities contacted them and assured them that they had not found anyone at the indicated points. The organization also adds that on Wednesday, contact was lost with two of the four groups and that only the two larger ones, stranded on islets, remained in contact: one, of about 250 people, had been surrounded by the police. Another, of about 100 people trapped on an islet near the town of Lagina, was rounded up by officers and taken to a detention center. “We cannot say much more about the situation [of the groups], but previously, when the authorities claim they cannot find them, what they do is to attack the migrants and return them illegally to Turkey. It’s an excuse they often use,” says Vassilis.
Groups of civilians hunting for migrants is yet another threat that adds to the already treacherous conditions they face when crossing the border. The route involves a militarized zone where no one is permitted to enter, not even humanitarian aid organizations. They use the dense forests to hide for indeterminate periods of time during which they have no access to food, sanitation, or any other basic necessity. “There is no assistance there. It is almost impossible to help them when they are in hiding. Sometimes they take food with them, sometimes they go somewhere nearby to look for it,” says Lefteris Papayannakis of the Greek Refugee Institute. “We know that sometimes the Turks give them food while forcing them to cross, or give them access to power to charge their phones.”
Papayannakis adds that road accidents involving vehicles carrying migrants are frequent. “They are trafficked in cabs or vans to the cities. It is illegal, so sometimes the traffickers go very fast, in the wrong direction... We know of people who have died or been seriously injured because they were involved in an accident.”
For his part, the Minister of Climate Crisis and Civil Protection, Vassilis Kikilias, has attributed the death of migrants to not having followed the evacuation orders that are sent automatically, in Greek and English, to all cellphones in the affected area: “In Evros there have been 15 fire outbreaks at the same time, which have joined together to form a huge fire,” read one. Satellite images show an immense area in flames, with a front reaching 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) and advancing “uncontrollably” in several directions. The dense smoke from this large fire, together with that of other fronts in Greece, has reached the islands of Sicily and Malta, more than a 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) away, and now covers 80% of Greek territory. Kerasiotis, of HIAS, takes a different view of the tragedy: “The cause of these 18 deaths is a combination of the absence of legal and safe entry procedures on Greek and European territory, together with the fact that potential asylum seekers are afraid of being illegally returned to Turkey.”
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