ORESTIADA, Greece – On a chilly night recently a half-dozen young men huddled in the shadows of the tiny train station here, stamping their feet to stay warm, waiting, though they had no money, to board a train for Athens.
Some were from Morocco. Others from Algeria. All said they had flown into Istanbul only a few days before, taken a bus to the Greek-Turkish border and simply walked into Greece, crossing at night through fields planted with potatoes and garlic.
“A friend told me how to do it,” said Yousef Silimani, 23, who like the others was neatly, even fashionably dressed. “My feet were frozen. But it was really easy.”
Ten years ago bodies were washing up on Spanish beaches as traffickers drove overloaded, rickety boats near the shore. There they forced immigrants, many of whom did not know how to swim, to jump into the sea and scramble for safety.
A few years later traffickers were focused on Italy’s coastline and the Greek islands.
But after security in those areas was reinforced with patrol boats and helicopters – and Italy and Spain signed repatriation agreements with North African countries – immigrants and their traffickers adapted.
Now it is the border between Greece and Turkey, including a 12-kilometre stretch just a few kilometres from here, that has become the latest crossing point for immigrants seeking entry into the European Union.
In 2009, police officials say, about 3,500 immigrants came over the nearby border. In 2010, more than 10 times that many – around 36,000 – arrived.
Twenty-one drowned in the muddy, fast-moving Evros River, which marks most of the border between Greece and Turkey.
The wave of new immigrants hit so fast and so hard that Greek officials turned to the EU’s border management agency, Frontex, for emergency aid in patrolling the border.
In January, Greece announced that it would build a fence along the land border, prompting outrage from some immigrant rights groups that fear that legitimate asylum seekers, particularly from Iran and Afghanistan, will not be able to get through.
But officials here say they have no choice. The new immigrants come at a time when Greece can least afford to be hospitable. It is struggling with huge debts and a faltering economy. Its detention centres are overflowing, lacking even such basics as soap and toilet paper.
Immigrants who apply for asylum wait years for their cases to be heard. Greece has a backlog of 46,000 applications, officials say, a situation that prompted the European Court of Human Rights to fine Greece in January.
“Greece is not actually the El Dorado of Europe and we must make it clear that it is not an option when entering Europe,” said Christos Papoutsis, Greece’s secretary of citizen protection. “Especially at this point in time, we just can’t handle it.”
Some of those crossing the border seek refuge from war and conflict. But many, like Oussam Benchikha, 18, who was waiting for the Athens train, are just looking for a better life.
“I want to be married,” said Benchikha, who said he had worked making pizzas back home in Algeria. “You need money to be married. I want to get a job right away,”
The flood of immigrants has changed life in this town and in the tidy, whitewashed villages closer to the border, where doors were never locked before. Many mornings, Fani Penitidou, 31, arrives at her convenience store in Nea Vissa and sees immigrants sleeping in the small bus shelter across the street.
“You see them on top of each other, trying to stay warm,” she said. “They are just people.But they do not have a future here. Greece cannot accommodate them.”
Within days most head to Athens, where their presence has transformed neighbourhoods and stirred strong anti-immigrant feelings. Few can find work and crime rates have risen, hardening sentiment against them.
In the last few months the city has experienced a wave of attacks on immigrants, believed to be the work of right-wing extremists.
Immigrants have been beaten and stabbed in downtown Athens and in the most grievous attack, in October, assailants locked the door of a makeshift mosque and hurled firebombs through the windows, seriously wounding four worshipers.
Experts say that trying to stop the flow of immigrants to the EU is much like playing a game of whack-a-mole. When one entrance is cut off, another emerges. At the moment the Greek land border is an easy entry point compared with obstacles elsewhere.
For one thing, Turkey recently removed visa restrictions for North Africans, so many immigrants, like the young men at the station, can fly into Istanbul for 250 euros. In addition, minefields near the border were largely removed a few years ago, after some immigrants were wounded.
“Usually the measures that are taken don’t stop the flow, they divert it,” said Anna Triandafyllidou, a migration expert with the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy. “Sometimes they moderate it. But mostly they just divert it.”
In his office in Orestiada, the police chief, George Salamangas, shows off photos and videotapes of immigrants making a run over the border – a mere strip of land between parallel dirt roads, one in Turkey, the other in Greece.
One video shows about two dozen young men casually emerging through tall grass. Another shows a smaller group easily outrunning the border guards to make it onto Greek soil.
But one series of photos shows a group, including women and children, that has been stranded on a tiny island in the middle of the river, clinging to trees to stay dry.
Salamangas says that even 30 years ago the Greece-Turkey border was being used as an entry point by Pakistanis, Iranians and Turkish Kurds. In the last decade there were arrivals from Bangladesh, Iraq, India and Afghanistan.
But in the last year there has been a huge increase in immigrants from Africa. Traffickers have changed their methods, too, he said.
They tell the immigrants to rip up their papers and cross without any identification, claiming to be from the Palestinian territories, Afghanistan or Somalia, depending on their skin color – claims that would give them a better chance at asylum.
Salamangas says that relations with Turkish soldiers on the other side remain difficult. Despite an agreement to do so, he said, soldiers there often refuse to take back immigrants who are stopped in the tiny buffer zone that separates the countries.
Captain Gennaro Di Bello, the team leader of the Frontex group working in the area, said that Turkey had been doing better lately. But he said that each incident was a new negotiation, dependent on the attitude of the soldiers on the other side.
Papoutsis, the Greek secretary of citizen protection, says that the EU involvement is crucial in helping Greece and Turkey come to an agreement on dealing with the immigrants.
In recent weeks, since Frontex arrived with night-vision gear and heat-seeking cameras, the number of immigrants arriving each day has dropped, officials said.
Waiting at the train station here, the young men joked and smoked cigarettes, not really sure where they were. They were astounded when they were told that Athens was more than 900 kilometres away.