It isn’t water that kills migrants - states have made Maritsa River a graveyard

We are in the Turkish province of Edirne, within shouting distance of the border with Greece. We can see the soldiers warily patrolling the wire fencing that stretches along the 191-kilometre borderline.

The border appears carefully guarded, even impenetrable, from where we are standing, yet this perspective does not give the full picture. In fact, figures from the United Nations Refugee Agency revealed, the number of refugees illegally crossing from Edirne to Greece has risen by 140 percent since 2017.

Considering the volume of migrants who pass through the city to reach the land routes or River Maritsa crossing points that lead to Greece, Edirne appears deceptively calm. There is good reason for this: unregistered migrants tend to stay for a few hours at most before attempting to cross the border.

The villages that dot the border, however, are a different story. Towns close to the Maritsa, like Küplü, Subaşı, Serem, Adasarhanlı, Doyran and Üylüktatar, are among the most heavily used by people smugglers.

They are also frequently raided by the gendarmerie.

Before the recent waves of migration, the most serious news to come from the Maritsa would tend to be on its annual winter floods. Now, with migrants driven toward Greece by wars in Turkey’s southern neighbours and political repression on the rise in Turkey, the river has become one of the busiest crossing points on the migrant route.

Thousands of Turkish members of the Gülen organisation, a religious movement Ankara blames for the failed coup attempt in July 2016, have joined the migrant wave.

The route is not an easy one. The exact number of migrants who have died crossing the treacherous waters of the Maritsa is not known, but international sources say it exceeds 1,500 in the last two-and-a-half years alone.

Around 500 of those who drowned in the Maritsa have remained unidentified, and many are buried in unmarked graves in Edirne. The sheer number of migrants’ deaths has meant sections for unmarked graves have been set aside in cemeteries in migration hotspots of Çanakkale, Muğla and Izmir as well as Edirne.

There are several reasons Edirne is a notoriously dangerous stretch on the migrants’ journey: for one thing, the Maritsa’s river basin is prone to floods during the periods of heavy rain the province is known for. Besides, the temperature frequently drops below zero in winter months, and this, combined with the heavy vegetation in the province, makes the going particularly tough.

Locals tell us migrants always make the crossings at night, further adding to the danger. To mitigate this, crossings are made from specific points along the river, where inflatable boats are hidden camouflaged underneath trees. The boats are quickly inflated and put on the river, and in favourable conditions the entire crossing will take around 10 minutes.

All of this takes place in a highly restricted military zone, under the nose of guards in watchtowers dotted along the border. We could find noone at the villages willing to comment on how illegal migrant crossings have risen by 140 percent in spite of all these precautions.

Members of the Gülen organisation fleeing Turkey are doubtless one of the factors behind the spike. Thanks to the intense focus of Turkish security forces on the group, the route has become more difficult; not only has the security presence on the border intensified, but also charity groups that had provided aid to migrants have cut their activities to avoid the danger of associating with Gülenists, and residents report that migrants caught on either side of the border can be subject to violence.

Greek officers, the residents say, have been known to rob foreign migrants who make the crossing at night before sending them back where they came from. Yet none of these dangers have stemmed the flow of migrants seeking to cross the Maritsa, and the smuggling networks are in place to help them cross and get paid doing so.

“The team that organises the crossing will transport the migrants after receiving word from their men watching the border,” a source with knowledge of the smuggling network in Edirne told us.

“They make them wait for a while in the forest near the river. Then they take them on footpaths through farmland to the riverside,” our source told us, calling to our attention the large number of vehicles carrying migrants from the villages to the border. “They don’t turn on their headlights, so you need to be close up to see them.”

Neşe Özgen, a professor of sociology at Ege University in Izmir, is among Turkey’s foremost authorities on the study of borders, and has followed the traffic of migrants closely during a period spent working in Greece.

In April and May alone, 14,000 people crossed from the Maritsa river and Aegean Sea into Greece to claim asylum, according to Özgen. Counting those who passed through Greece without claiming asylum, that number could be five times higher.  

“Of course, it’s worth noting these are the figures for spring months, when the weather and sea temperature is still cold. They rise a huge amount over the summer months. When it comes to migration numbers, we always multiply the official figures by five,” she said.

In the old days, Özgen said, migrants would make use of a route from Edirne that crossed into Bulgaria. That route was popular with Marxist organisations such as the Turkish Communist Party, whose international networks would facilitate the crossings. However, since 2006 the route has fallen out of use.

“After being an active route for many years, more recently local nationalist criminal gangs and retired soldiers from the EU border control agency Frontex have started guarding it,” Özgen told us, adding that a route across the Black Sea had been cut off in a similar fashion.

In fact, the routes from Turkey have caused considerable headaches in the European Union, where the issue of incoming migrants is highly divisive.

“In April 2009 after a summit in Vienna the EU pulled its borders back behind Greece and Bulgaria,” Özgen said. “One reason for this was that Turkey had turned its commitment to border security into a means of blackmail. The main driving force behind this agreement was Germany.”

For Özgen, that is indicative of a larger overarching reality of the migrant trade: just like the smuggling networks carrying migrants across borders, states understand the illegal flow of people can benefit their interests and at certain times will turn a blind eye to it.

“Of course, when this occurs it does so in a controlled manner. Illegal crossings will always be done in a shady and opaque manner, but in the end they are controlled,” she said.

Thus, she said, Greece has been lax about its border policies in recent months, and is apparently not registering many of the incoming migrants, likely for economic reasons. The opposite, however, is true when it comes to borders with the other European countries, and those making the crossing from Turkey can face illegal deportations.

In short, the treatment of migrants has more to do with the states’ interests than with the law or concern for human rights, and as such Özgen is unequivocal about their responsibility for migrants’ deaths.

“It isn’t the water that kills people trying to cross the border,” she said. “What kills them is the states’ border policies.”