“A wall against immigration. Evros, the eastern gate of Europe" | Evros river, border, Festival of Ethical Photography, Mufti Mohammed Sharif, Médecins Sans Frontières, Human Rights Watch, Ovgu Pinar, Federica Araco, Mauro Prandelli
“A wall against immigration. Evros, the eastern gate of Europe" Print
Federica Araco   

//©Mauro Prandelli©Mauro Prandelli

Evros river, a natural border between Turkey and Greece since 1922, is considered by many as the gateway to the East and marks the end of the European territory and the beginning of the Asian continent. 30 m wide and round 170 km long, this stream is the last major obstacle to overcome before entering the Schengen area for thousands of migrants. In August 2011, the Athens government had begun to dig a ditch around its banks make it impractical to swim across. For the high price and poor results, in 2012 new decision was taken to build a wall, inaugurated in December of the same year. This double barrier, made of fence and barbed wire, 15 meters long and 4 meters high, constitutes an ideological as well as a political and cultural boundary between the two countries. And it costed Greece, already crippled by a deep economic and social crisis more than 3 million euros.

//©Mauro Prandelli©Mauro Prandelli

Mauro Prandelli, in his photo-reportage “A wall against immigration. Evros, the eastern gate of Europe” tells about the lives of migrants attempting to cross the river.

250 people every day, according to data from EULEX, not counting the hundreds of bodies returned by the waves from 2007 to present… They are mostly young North Africans and sub-Saharan Africans, but there are also families fleeing the war in Syria, with women and children in tow, asylum seekers, Kurds, Turks and Iranians, Afghans and Bangladeshis.

"One morning I saw through the fog some people who didn’t have African or Asian African features," says the author. "After talking to them I found out that they came from the Dominican Republic. They spent about 2000 euros to arrive to Mogadishu, and from there to Istanbul, and then to the border. One of them was holding the Bible, believing that the prayers would help him on the journey, though he was not sure which way to go. A girl who was with them almost died of hypothermia: she had crossed the river by swimming along with other migrants but they had missed the passage point so they had to go back and cross it. It was night and there was a chilly wind. When I met her, she couldn’t move her legs and arms."

The work, carried out in March 2012, has been presented in several Italian cities and recently at the Festival of Ethical Photography in Lodi, with an exhibition curated by Sandro Iovine. 25 color photos depicting hands covering faces to avoid being recognized or to protect from the bitter cold of winter, abandoned objects as owners escaped, bodies exhausted from hours of walking to reach beyond the river, the first Greek cities of Orestiada, Kastanies and Alexandroupoli. The shots reflect in a very clear and direct way the emotional atmosphere that can be felt along the border: the fear of falling into the hands of agents who patrol the river, and the tension of the persons who risk their lives immersing themselves in the icy and turbulent waters. "Many are asylum seekers, others refugees or migrants for economic reasons," says the photographer. He continues: "I met a young Syrian Kurd of 26 years, Johan. He graduated in economics from the University of Homs, fled his country after deserting Assad’s army not to shoot his Kurdish brothers, he said. If he goes back in Syria he risks the death penalty."

“A wall against immigration. Evros, the eastern gate of Europe" | Evros river, border, Festival of Ethical Photography, Mufti Mohammed Sharif, Médecins Sans Frontières, Human Rights Watch, Ovgu Pinar, Federica Araco, Mauro Prandelli

Many of them have been abandoned to a tragic fate by the policies of border control of a country incapable of dealing with the issue in an appropriate manner. The only Islamic cemetery in the region is situated in Sidirò, thirty kilometers from Evros. With a small contribution from the Greek government, Mufti Mohammed Sharif and his wife Fatme bury the dead bodies of Muslim migrants, recovered from the river or found in the surrounding countryside. "Until 2010 there was only one large mass grave which does not conform to European norms," says Prandelli. "On the other hand, those who manage to survive but have to go to hospital because of their wounds or sicknesses must be reported to the police by law, and they are filed and guarded throughout the recovery."

In a report published in September 2011, "The EU 's Dirty Hands: Frontex Involvement in Ill- Treatment of Migrant Detainees in Greece", Human Rights Watch (HRW) denounced the worsening of the living conditions of migrants in the country after the deployment of the rapid intervention team "RABIT” along the Evros river between late 2010 and early 2011. According to data collected by the European agency for the management of international cooperation at the external borders of the member states of the union (Frontex), the operation has lowered the percentage of irregular crossings by 76 percent. Since then, the Turkish border is patrolled by the Frontex troopers, who scan the area with high definition thermo-cameras from the hills above Evros.

These detailed checks, reports HRW, have also increased considerably transfers in Greek detention centers, notorious for poor conditions and for the numerous complaints of violations of fundamental human rights .

//©Mauro Prandelli©Mauro Prandelli

"In the weeks that I was there, the government announced the opening of thirty new centers designed to accommodate about 30 thousand people," tells the author. "Many facilities were closed or were under renovation after the activism of Médecins Sans Frontières and Human Rights Watch. The migrants stay there from one day up to three months, the time required to verify the provenance or to resolve bureaucratic problems, as explained to me by police spokesman of Alexandroupoli. After the checks, inmates are released a few kilometers from the first city that has public transport."

"Many people who live near the border, then take advantage of the situation by offering to drive them to Athens, for a fee of course. They are mostly farmers or fishermen in the villages near Evros, the only people who have access to the river.

In these areas, xenophobic and extreme right political propaganda is very prominent. “I was there when, on March 28th, the Golden Dawn party has organized a march in support of a bill that gave the green light for police to open fire on anyone trying to cross the frontier and to place landmines along the border,"says the photographer.

The proposal was not approved, but the tension is high and the level of violence and racism in the country raises serious concern. The wide acclaim the neo-fascist formation has received so far is an obvious signal.


To see the complete slide show:




Federica Araco

Translated from Italian by Ovgu Pinar