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 Kastaniés, 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!

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Hawar's Story

18 March 2014

Today I did what I came here for. Once again I set off to make my way through the jungle of controls at Kapitan Andreevo border checkpoint. Everything went smoothly, and I took the conventional bus route to Pastrogor’s refugee camp. When I arrived I called Hawar, the guy I met yesterday when I unsuccessfully attempted to get inside the camp. His wife picked up the phone and told me that Hawar would be outside in fifteen minutes. During my short wait I met another young Syrian refugee and had a short conversation. He didn’t speak much English, but he seemed really friendly and happy to meet me. Hawar arrived pretty quickly though, still sweaty from doing some exercise. I explained the procedure of the interview, and asked him to sign the consent form. These forms are rubbish. I understand the purpose behind them, but the ethical review committees do not realise that these standardised forms can give the impression that an interviewee’s story may thus be reduced to standardised data. Hawar was kind enough to go along with the procedure though, being apparently used to paperwork. Off we went on a walk. The refugee camp was about a kilometre outside the village of Pastrogor. The landscape was beautiful, and a car only drove by every other minute.

Hawar was Kurdish and grew up in Aleppo. In August 2012 the situation in Syria’s second city became so bad that he and his wife decided to leave the country, just two weeks after they got married. Hawar was in the fourth year of his degree in economics, and he was just about to finish when the situation in Aleppo became unbearable, forcing him to leave everything behind. Hawar and his wife, her parents and her brother paid smugglers to take them to an unpatrolled part of the border, and walked across to Turkey. In the first Turkish village they reached, a car picked them up, and they travelled to Istanbul. Hawar got a job in an Internet café and made a bit of money, but eventually he lost that job, and the family decided to go to Europe. Finding someone to take them out of Turkey was easy. Istanbul is a market for war-profiteers. Without war, smugglers would be out of business very quickly, but as it is, the city is full of them. As a Syrian refugee, you don’t have to find smugglers – they find you. Going to Bulgaria is pretty cheap compared to other European destinations: Bulgaria, €300 per person; Greece, €3,000; Germany, €8,000; Denmark and Sweden, €10,000. Every country has its price. Greece is in the Schengen area, but many cannot afford to pay the smugglers. Furthermore, the trip may be deadly, as you have to take a small boat across the Mediterranean. For Hawar and his family, Bulgaria was the only viable option. Once again, they left everything in Istanbul behind and were taken to the border. They walked across. There is a fence, but it’s small enough to climb over.

Hawar described detention in Kapitan Andreevo as the worst experience of his life. He was separated from his wife and her family, and his locked cell door terrified him. Nevertheless, his stay in detention lasted only for a couple of days, and the family was eventually reunited and transferred to another refugee facility. Finally, they got into a camp in Harmanli. It turned out that Hawar’s wife was pregnant, and that her parents had the opportunity to go to Germany. Hawar tried hard to get him and his pregnant wife into what he heard was the best Bulgarian refugee facility: Pastrogor. Once again he had to pay, but things worked out, and they were transferred. A week ago his wife gave birth to twin boys, Boran and Ivan.

Hawar knew all about the European asylum system. He told me that everyone knows about Dublin, and he knew that Dublin-transfers to Greece were suspended. What he didn’t understand is why people are still sent back to Bulgaria. He said that Germany should send a delegation to Bulgaria, and that he cannot believe that they will find what is going on here acceptable.

I told him about the ideas to replace Dublin with a quota-system, to which he had this to say: it doesn’t matter which country you stay in as long as it’s safe and as long as you can make a living. He said that Bulgaria is a beautiful country. Everyone he met was friendly and kind, and people do want to help refugees. If he could get a job and have enough money for an apartment and enough to eat for him and his family, he would stay in Bulgaria. The soil in Germany is no better than the soil in Bulgaria.

I thought that these were profound words. The final question I asked him was whether he thinks he made the right decision by leaving Syria. One really needs to consider what he and his wife went through, yet they still stand behind their choice. Syria is not safe, and he wants his children to grow up in peace and security.

Courtyard of Edirne's amazing Selimiye mosque
I have to say that I was deeply moved by our conversation. I hitchhiked back to my hotel with two different cars. At the border I briefly chatted with the drivers of the ‘Projekt Syrien’ ambulances I mentioned yesterday. They were German Muslims who drove to Syria to donate the vans to local doctors. When I arrived back in Edirne I sat in the awesome Selimiye mosque for a while just to put what I’d heard into order. I hate the fact that I have had to record and transcribe this interview, turning it into ‘data’ for analysis, but I hope that this work will give refugees a voice. Hawar said that although he was in Bulgaria, he hadn’t seen Europe yet. I hope that the Europe he referred to really exists. I am extremely grateful to Hawar for sharing his story with me. I could tell that it was no easy task for him.

Tomorrow I’m going to Orestiada in Greece.

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.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Arrival in Edirne

16 March 2014

So here I am! Edirne! My hotel room could be better, but it’s alright. You do feel like you’re in a different part of the world here. There is a massive, beautiful mosque outside my window. It’s Sunday night, yet everyone seems to be out in the streets playing backgammon. All major roads are decorated with thousands of flags, which I am guessing are meant to show support to a political party. I’ve driven for two hours from Istanbul to Edirne and scanned every radio station – I did not hear a single English-language song. It’s not that I minded. I love Turkish music. But it’s still surprising. As you approach the border Turkish songs are mixed with Greek and Bulgarian. The transition is gradual. The people across the border are probably still Muslims. I’ll see tomorrow.

View from my hotel room
First thing I’ll do when I get up will be to find a copyshop of some sort. Stupidly, I forgot to print out participant information sheets and consent forms. All interviewees will have to read and sign before they can participate in my research. Then I’m going to head over to Swilengrad accommodation centre, and start doing some interviews. I really have no idea what to expect… Will people even speak English?

Last time I wrote I was quite optimistic that everything was going to work out. This was somewhat unreasonable. Martin keeps warning me that I am underestimating the language issue. Swilengrad have changed their mind, and no longer want to be interviewed. It seems as though they have no one who speaks English. They told him that I should just drive straight to the accommodation centre. That’s what I’ll do then, but it still poses the question how they can communicate with asylum seekers. How can they inform applicants for asylum about their rights if no one can talk to them? I guess this is one of the first things that I will have to find out.

I am hoping for a response from Mr Nikas tomorrow, so I’ve got a green light for visiting Orestiada detention centre. If I don’t get a response by 2pm, I will call him again. Alright, off to bed now. Long day ahead tomorrow…

Tickets Booked!

13 March 2014

Finally, good news! Lots of good news actually. After my initial attempts to get in touch with the responsible authorities have been somewhat unsuccessful, I am now on track towards getting this field research done. I tried calling Caltanissetta and Swilengrad, but as soon as they realised I was speaking English they hung up the phone. Another strategy was called for. I contacted my friend Martin and asked if he could help me. He lives in Italy and speaks both Italian and Bulgarian. Martin replied promptly, “I must help you, comrade.” He called up the municipal authorities in Harmanli and Swilengrad. Both of them are willing to assist my research! In Harmanli, the reception centre is located in a small village nearby. They told Martin that I would just have to swing by and tell them I want to visit. In Swilengrad, it seems as though I will be able to speak with the authorities as well. Sounds really good! Lyubimets is the only place that I want to visit that we haven’t contacted yet. It is home to one of the most notorious camps in Europe.

Alex and I also undertook serious efforts to get my research in Greece going. Emails don’t seem to work. Phone calls were needed. The first thing I suggested was that we call the municipal authorities in Orestiada. Orestiada is a city of around 25,000 people right next to the Turkish border. It is one of the few parts of that border where there is no river which makes entry into Greece for undocumented migrants significantly more difficult. The city houses the only Greek detention centre, although a second one is currently being set up on the island of Lesbos. Alex called Orestiada’s authorities and spoke Greek. People were reasonably cooperative, and we were forwarded to the local police station. It turns out that the police is indeed who is responsible for organising visits to the detention centre, but that it is the Greek national public relations department who hands out the authorisation to do so. This was clearly a step forward. A visit to the detention centre was at least possible. We then called the public relations department in Athens. The person we spoke to had no idea why we would call there, but forwarded us to someone who may know something about asylum and migration issues. That person, in turn, was very helpful, and after a small wait found out the number of Panagiotis Nikas – this was the guy I needed. His secretary asked me to write a formal application letter to acquire the necessary authorisation. I did so immediately and faxed it through right away. I hope that a fax is harder to ignore than an email. They told Alex that a response could be expected very soon, which I hope means tomorrow.

Another thing I should perhaps mention: yesterday I booked tickets to fly from Leipzig to Istanbul. I am leaving on Sunday and will only stay for a couple of days. I got a cheap hotel in Edirne and a rental car set up. (Can’t wait to drive in Istanbul!) I was planning on just having a look around the area to prepare for my real research trip. But now it looks as though I could actually get the bulk of it done! I am really starting to look forward to all this. Now I have some more reading to do on applying grounded theory.

First Thoughts

10 March 2014

My field research is about to begin. This is the essence of my PhD. My field research is the reason I got funding, and it was the impetus for this whole endeavour. Without it, this project would be meaningless.

What is Europe? What is the EU? For most academics, asylum seekers would not be the first place to start. In fact, I often feel as though academics are uninterested in field research. Indiana Jones remains a fiction, real only to TV audiences. Real researchers sit in front of a screen. But that is not the world. I want to see the world through the eyes of immigrants, a group voiceless and displaced, yet a group with so much potential power. They are the proof that the EU is not a closed system. The laboratory conditions that Haas speaks of are an illusion.

First problem I am facing: recruitment. When I submitted the application for ethical approval, the procedure seemed so smooth. Now I know that what I wrote in that application was non-sense. I was hoping to simply write the Italian, Bulgarian and Greek authorities, getting a response a couple of hours later. This was a total fallacy. The problem is, that for now I cannot think of a better recruitment procedure. Of course, I have written NGOs. In fact, I have written about thirty NGOs. Given their values and ideals, one would expect them to be just as enthusiastic about my project as me, but it turns out that all I have gotten is a single response from UNHCR Italy. I was very pleased when I read their message, hoping that this would lead me somewhere, but it turns out that what I am left with is a list of email addresses that I have to go through.

Sicily houses asylum seekers in three different locations: Caltinissetto, Trapani und Ragusa. I have written the prefetturas of all three locations, without getting any responses so far. If they did respond, my research could proceed. I would acquire authorisation to enter refugee camps, could speak to the local staff, and I could interview asylum seekers. Finally I could see through the lens that makes this dissertation distinct from anything anyone has read so far.

Right now I think of my trips to Sicily and Thrace as holidays. Sure, I know that what I’ll hear will terrify me. When I went to Malta I often thought how incredibly lucky I had been to grow up in a wealthy area. (Since then I have become far more sensitive.) Nevertheless, although we are currently blessed with temperatures reaching up to the low twenties, I can’t wait to see the land of Commissario Montalbano. Probably the reality of the situation I am investigating will hit me really hard when I arrive. It really is about time for me to book my flights…