All Photos are from Association of Bridging Peoples
A group from our Association traveled to Edirne on March 7, 2020, to witness the terrible situation of refugees at the border and to distribute supplies contributed by our volunteers and supporters. The group distributed packages of food and hygiene essentials, received information from local people and municipal officials and communicated directly with many refugees.
From the moment we decided to travel to Edirne and publicized this information, we received many messages of solidarity with a large amount of material and moral support.
We immediately began to make lists of supplies needed urgently, based on the information we received from volunteers and NGO’s active in the region. Most urgently needed were food packages, drinking water, baby diapers, baby food, shoes for children, sanitary pads for women and clothes. Within a week, our volunteers had purchased and packaged all these supplies. On the evening of March 6 2020, our volunteers loaded them on the bus we had rented for our trip and shortly after midnight, 26 volunteers of our Association set out for Edirne.
As our bus approached Karaagac (the town closest to the border), we observed police controls at almost every corner and every bridge. Some of the roads leading to Pazarkule border control point were closed and passage was permitted only through one road. No journalists were allowed beyond a certain point.
We saw that after the Turkish authorities’ announcement that the borders were opened, many refugees in different Turkish cities had left whatever they had established as a life, and rushed to the border with Greece at Edirne.
We learned from workers on the ground that the banks of the river Meric were vacated, the living conditions of the refugees at the border were intolerable and a group of about 500 refugees at the bus depot were receiving relatively better care.
Distribution of Supplies
It took our group a while to decide where to distribute the supplies we had brought along, because we were told by the police that no distribution was permitted in the area, except by the official workers of government organizations: the Red Crescent and AFAD (Directorate of Emergency Management).
With the help of an Iraqi refugee with whom we established contact, we found a street where we could distribute packages to refugees approaching the city centre.
As soon as we began to take the packages out of the bus, the refugees gathered at the area. Loaves of bread and bottles of water were added to food packages, and distributed for half an hour. After that time, the police prevented further distribution, stating once again that only the Red Crescent or AFAD could distribute supplies.
Thus, the distribution in that street was discontinued, and we established a new area: a pathway that the refugees needing to shop for basic needs used as a shortcut to Karaagac. We completed the distribution of our supplies in this area. During distribution, we noted that the refugees were considerate towards each other’s turns and needs. Thanks to their sensitive and orderly behaviour, the distribution was accomplished easily. During this process, we learned from the refugees that the most urgently needed items were warm jackets, shoes, nylon canvas for tents, rice flour, halva and masks.
Observations at Karaagac
In the afternoon, there was an increase in the activity at Karaagac, with the arrival of the refugees in town for shopping. Soon we found out that one of the important needs that brought them to town was the need to charge their phones and to look for power banks. Several refugees told us that the mobile phones had gained tremendous importance, and that they charged their phones at some of the tea houses and coffee shops. However, refugees charging their phones at such places were removed by the police before our eyes. We saw that some of the town folk took advantage of the refugees (hiking up prices), while some expressed solidarity, quietly defying the police.
We also observed that some locals carried the supplies bought by the refugees by improvised horse-carts or motor-cycles, asking for about 15 or 20 Turkish Liras for this service.
Closer to the border, townsfolk were selling electricity for charging phones, used clothes, shoes and food. In fact, they had set up a small market that was being controlled by municipal security personnel.
Finally, we observed that the markets in the region were selling goods for prices far above the normal rates. Only one market had normal prices and it had long line-ups in front of the door. The refugees were buying bread and water at that market.
Observations from No-man’s-Land
After the distribution of supplies, we set up a small team that also included a couple of refugees, to observe the camp ground at the border. Because police prevented anyone other than the refugees to enter the area near the border, everyone on the team was warned by the refugees not to speak Turkish. If security forces noted Turkish people among the refugees, they would remove them immediately.
During this expedition, we noted heavy circulation of refugees in the area between the border and the town of Karaagac. The refugees’ camp ground was closed off by a barricade but about 20 meters from the Greek border, they were able to go in and out through a space left in the barricade. (While we were there, we observed a military vehicle carrying a rubber, inflatable boat to the area).
On the earth-road leading to the border, there were line-ups of thousands of refugees. These line-ups that extended for several kilometers were for food and for toilets.
During the period our team spent in the area, tear gas was being thrown at the refugees at every five minutes, and affecting especially children and women severely.
It was also observed that Greek soldiers were intervening with high-pressure water and plastic bullets. In response, some refugees were throwing back the gas shells into the Greek side, while some refugees were tying ropes on the fences at the border and pulling on them to demolish the fences. In that area, there was a great deal of tear gas and high-pressure water.
The refugees were throwing stones at the Greek soldiers across the border, and the Greek soldiers were throwing stones at the refugees.
We noted that some of the tear-gas shells we picked up at this border area were marked “made in Turkey.”
It was forbidden to take pictures at the border. The police that noticed our team instructed us to leave the area and not to attempt to get back there.
Communication with the Refugees
The refugees we spoke with said they had come to the border because they were told the borders with Greece were open. They were not expecting the treatment they were receiving, and that none of their needs were being met, especially health needs were urgent.
They said the Turkish soldiers had told them to “break the border gates, we’ll support you” and suggested they take along women and children when they go to break the gates. They added that Turkish soldiers were kicking sleeping refugees to wake them up, saying “if you sleep like this no one will open the gates for you.”
They described how a red pepper spray from the Greek side began to be thrown at them on the third day of their arrival at the border, and some refugees fainted because of the gas. Many could not breathe, and a pregnant woman mis-carried. They added that no ambulance arrived, despite the fact that they repeatedly asked for one.
They said most of the time, they were not allowed to go into the village to get essentials, and that some refugees were told they were being taken back to Istanbul, put into buses and abandoned on a riverside to pressure Greece.
They complained that toilets and showers on the campsite were insufficient and because of very long line-ups for food, they were having to get on line at 9 a.m., to receive some food at 6 p.m. They added that the food service was arbitrary, and that from time to time men were refused food so they might cross the border.
They reported that clashes were taking place between the refugees and Greek soldiers every day, especially in the evenings. Gas and high-pressure water were being used by Greek border guards.
Because the area where clashes took place was also where the camp-site was located, the refugees were subjected to gas constantly.
They reported there were dead and lost children and adults at the no-man’s-land, and only one mobile hospital served tens of thousands of people.
They said there was a pathway from the border to the center of the town of Karaagac, and at certain times of the day, the security guards allowed refugees to pass through that pathway.
Further to the above, one of the refugees we spoke to had shrapnel beneath the skin near his eye and another one had bullet holes on his sweater. We attempted to take the refugee with shrapnel near his eye to the hospital but he refused because he was afraid he would not be allowed to return.
What we saw at the border was a human tragedy. Even the most basic needs of the people encouraged by the Turkish Government to go to the border have not been met. Refugees who suffer serious human rights violations at the border are in mortal danger. Despite all this, we also observed solidarity between them.
An issue that can only be resolved by countries has reached enormous proportions by the mis-management of governments, and has become a crisis. Thousands of people abandoned on the Turkish-Greek border on a political whim are faced with hunger, thirst and disease. Despite the fact that this terrible consequence of a political decision was predictable, these people who are called “guests” within the framework of international laws, were left at limbo between two hostile countries.
We, the Association of Bridging Peoples were able to reach between 500 to 1000 people in the border area where 10 000 to 20 000 refugees are waiting, and as an organization of solidarity, we shall continue to try to provide for their fundamental needs to the extent of our ability.
Here, we call upon the countries of the European Union: If the energy and funds you are spending to keep out the refugees had been spent to prevent or end wars, these people would not be forced to leave their homes and suffer at your borders.
Open your borders and recognize the refugees’ right to life!