The Turkish navy reports that at least 230 people drowned in 2007 while attempting illegal crossings of the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece. (Photo: AFP / Getty Images)
How many migrants was the rowboat carrying? Neither the Greek police nor the Turkish coast guard know. At the beginning of October, in rhythm with the tides, the sea washed 18 bodies up onto the Greek and Turkish coasts of the Aegean Sea. The victims, mostly from Iraq, were in the same boat. The same weekend, a truck went over in a ditch on the road between Istanbul and Greece. Eighteen illegal immigrants were found dead in the trailer, along with 25 others who were hurt. They came from Burma and Afghanistan.
This kind of news item has become a cliché on this European Union (EU) border. Every week, dozens of detentions swell the statistics. The Greek Minister of the Interior counts at least 80,000 migrants who entered the country between January and September. That already exceeds the numbers for the same period in 2007. Experts consider that this number errs largely on the downside. How many get through without being discovered? Greece, which declares that 112,000 illegal immigrants crossed its orders in 2007, just can't keep up.
The little eastern islands of the Aegean Sea are saturated and the coast guard repels craft by all means possible. In Patras - transformed into a kind of airlock - thousands of migrants sleep on the harbor hoping to embark for Italy. "Greece is experiencing a crisis. It's violating the Geneva Conventions," the local director of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (HCR), Georgios Tsarbopoulos, warned a few days ago. Demands for political asylum are systematically rejected: only eight of over 20,000 requests were granted in 2007. Hence, the HCR no longer counsels European countries to send migrants to Athens. Inside the Union, the demand for asylum must, in fact, be reviewed in the first country entered. But countries such as Norway and Belgium have already refused to apply this so-called Dublin convention.
Greece is demanding more assistance from the EU. Prime Minister Costas Caramanlis exhorts Brussels, for example, to create a European border guard to watch over its jagged coast line. The Frontex agency's sea patrols, even though they were doubled this year, are inadequate.
The travelers one finds on the Graeco-Turkish border are fleeing Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Somalia and, more recently, Georgia.... This flow is a barometer of global conflicts. Some experts also believe that this route is enjoying a resurgence of activity because illegal immigrants are less frequently heading towards Spain and Italy. Turkey is a natural way station and its western coasts face Europe. And the Greek government reproaches Turkey with inadequate participation in the fight against illegal immigration.
In Istanbul, revolt is already smoldering in the Kumkapi detention center. About 800 people - double its capacity - are moldering there: men, women, children and even a few newborns with their mothers.
Monday, October 13, the migrants burned mattresses and blankets and broke some windows to get some attention. The overcrowding, the lack of sanitation and the guards' racketeering "exhausts us," says Issa, an Ivory Coast native who has just spent eight months there and also participated in these mutinies. "They give us one meal a day and then sell us the rest for double the price," he recounts. "The police keep the blankets that NGOs give for themselves.... Everything is like that."
The length of detention is left to the administration's discretion. Some stay there a year or more. "Me, I'll look for a job for two or three months, save up a little on the side, and leave for Greece," Issa continues, shaking his head. For 800 Euros, within a few days a smuggler will find him a place on one of these fishing boats that leave the Turkish coasts at nightfall and bolt towards the nearest Greek islands. According to the Turkish navy, at least 230 people perished through drowning in 2007 while attempting that crossing.