Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Chasing Frontex through Orestiada

19 March 2014

I had great expectations for today’s trip to Orestiada, but unfortunately they were not met with results. I did not visit the detention centre, and the person responsible for granting the authorisation was not available. However, today’s efforts where not totally in vain – research, especially research that builds in critical grounded theory, is not about everything going as planned. In this light it would be heretical to know exactly what I am going to do at what time. Research agendas build themselves. Let me tell you what happened.

This is the GR-TR border fence and stretches on for 12km
I got up early and drove up to the border checkpoint near the Greek village of Kastani├ęs, which is about a ten minute drive. As I wrote before, the entire frontier area is highly militarised. I had the chance to take a few good shots of the border fence, and to speak with a couple of Greek soldiers. One of them was particularly talkative, and I could ask some questions. The explanation for the level of militarisation does indeed lie with illegal immigration. I was told that the number of people who used to cross this border ‘illegally’ was once very high. Since the ‘wall’, as the soldier referred to it, was erected, that number has dropped. They didn’t want to give me more precise information, and there was some discussion among the soldiers when I asked about this. From what little Greek I understood, I could tell that they were not happy to reveal details.

Behind the border a got a ride to Orestiada pretty quickly. The first thing the guy who picked me up told me, was that one has to be careful with hitchhikers these days. If you pick up a Pakistani, you can get into real trouble with the police.

At about 13.00 I made it to the Orestiada police station. Everybody spoke English, and the police officers were generally very approachable. I was surprised at the number of women in uniforms. After I told them that I was doing research on refugees, and that I was from Liverpool University, I was taken sufficiently seriously for them to call someone they thought may help me. I was asked to take the phone and spoke with the police station’s press officer. He was also very friendly, telling me that the only person who could give me an interview was the director of Orestiada’s police. Well, this sounded great! The problem was that they had received no information about my arrival from the national police office in Athens. Unless they give an authorisation, no interview would take place. I tried calling Athens to ask about my fax and my email, but the person responsible had a day off.

Trying to get a ride back to Turkey
I had lunch (best food on the trip) and went back to the police station at 14.30 to call the press officer again, just to see whether they were any news. As I approached the building, I suddenly noticed two guys in German (!) police uniforms. They also wore the characteristic blue arms bands with EU flags and the word FRONTEX on them. I didn’t want to leave Orestiada empty-handed, so I introduced myself. They were pretty friendly and, in principle, they were open to an interview – but not without authorisation the headquarters of Frontex in Warsaw. They were volunteers from Cologne, and told me that there were also some Dutch Frontex police in Orestiada. Then they had to go. I went inside the police station to make my phone call, when another two huge German police officers arrived. They too were from Frontex and seemed like the biggest guys I had ever seen. They pointed at me, saying, “That’s the guy.” I was on the phone though, and couldn’t speak to them. They went through a wordless procedure with the Greek police, and left after a half a minute. I finished my phone call (the press officer told me to come back with the authorisation on another day), left the building and watched the police officers disappear around a street corner. I was very curious about what they were doing in Orestiada, but their presence remains intriguing.

I wanted to speak to these guys, so I called Frontex in Warsaw. I got through to the right person straight away, who seemed very keen on helping me. She couldn’t promise anything, but told me that she would try to arrange for an interview on the same day. I called back an hour later, only to be told that the Frontex officer in Oresiada was unavailable, and that an email has been sent out. I knew at this point that I would not speak to anybody today. I waited for another hour in the sun for a potential phone call, but I didn’t really believe it was going to come. Eventually I made my way back home. It was very easy to hitch a ride back to Turkey.

What did I take from this day? I know now more or less exactly what I need to do. I need to get authorisation for interviews from Warsaw and Athens. The detention centre is 25km outside Orestiada in the middle of nowhere. I will have to come back here, and I need to have a car. This story is not over.


Today was the last day of this short research trip to Thrace, but I will return in a few weeks. So long!

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