Meral Candan / Duvar
Police have been suggesting to migrants that they cross the Evros River to enter Greece instead of crossing the Pazarkule Border Gate where riot-like scenes take place daily among the tens of thousands of migrants who’ve flocked there since Ankara’s Feb. 27 decision to open crossings into Europe.
The crowds wake up with the first light of day at Istanbul’s main bus terminal Esenler, anticipating news from the border that would encourage an attempt at a trip to the border province of Edirne.
Some in the crowd have been staying at Esenler Terminal for two days, waiting for news from their friends or relatives at the Pazarkule Border Gate to decide whether they will take a bus.
The teller says they haven’t slept in 24 hours and points to the crowd in the room.
“They’ve really turned this place into their home.”
“I’m definitely gonna get sick here,” the teller complains after asking around if anyone had extra masks and going back to selling tickets.
Ramazan, 28, has spent the night in the terminal with his relatives, including three kids.
They’ve come to Istanbul from the Balıkesir province in the Marmara Region and have friends at the Edirne border.
“They say the borders are closed, it’s cold and the soldiers are always yelling. So it’s really rough.”
Ramazan and his family decide not to leave for the border afterall because they’re worried about the kids they’re traveling with.
‘I believe the borders will open’
The bus to Edirne is filled mostly with migrants and refugees.
Zabinullah is 20, dreaming of leaving this country that he fled to from Afghanistan two and a half years ago. He watches the view outside as he gazes out the window with headphones on.
He found out the news about the borders opening on television in Balıkesir, where he works at construction sites for days’ wages, sending some of his money to his family in Afghanistan.
He doesn’t always have work and is tired of working with no job security.
His biggest dream about Europe is to go to university. He doesn’t care about which country he’ll end up in as long as he can get an education.
“I believe the borders will open; all these people couldn’t have gone there for nothing,” he says about the thousands at Pazakule Border Gate.
A young woman gets on the bus at the next stop, looks around and sits down, looking disgruntled.
“It makes me upset to see migrants going to the border so happily when we have had martyrs,” says the woman who travels between Edirne and Istanbul twice a week for work.
“Most of these people are young males. I get angry that those who can go to war are going to the border,” she says about the passengers.
She’s still happy they’re leaving though, she adds.
The immigration market in Edirne
The bus ends its route at Edirne Terminal, which is also crowded like its departure point, Esenler Terminal.
There are many waiting to go to Pazarkule, but also many others who’ve gone to the border and come back.
The migrants’ journey to the border has created its own market in Edirne.
Bus companies charge 20 TL (about $4) for extra trips that transport migrants to the Pazarkule Border Gate, a little under 15 kilometers and about a 25 minute drive.
Many Edirne locals will tell migrants they’re going to the border gate and bargain with migrants as they wait at the bus terminal with their vehicles.
Most people prefer the bus companies’ extra trips for the reasonable price.
The driver of the extra trips carries about 20 people in a vehicle normally used for the Edirne-Çorlu line.
The driver says they’ve spoken to many migrants and that they feel sorry that everyone is suffering rough conditions, both at the border gate and at the bus terminal.
“For instance I spoke with someone yesterday who managed to cross to the Greek side but got beaten up and sent back. How could you not be upset about that? After all, we’re all humans.”
The driver says that the news that Syrian migrants are leaving is false and that majority of the migrants they take to the border are from Afghanistan, Iraq or African states, not from Syria.
This is because of the similar events of five years ago, when the government said that they opened the border and migrants flocked to Edirne.
“They stayed in Kırkpınar for days and had to return when the borders wouldn’t open. That crowd was mostly Syrians, so I think they’ve learned that these declarations are usually unfounded.”
The driver drops off the passengers a kilometer away from the Pazarkule Border Gate and tells them he can’t take them any further because of increased security measures.
He tells them to walk the rest of the way, which is a construction site and the river on one side and endless fields on the other.
The only visible way of getting to the border gate is to cross a bridge in the distance and take the main road, but the police on the bridge tell the group that the road is closed and to turn around.
Soon, the crowd at the end of the bridge reaches hundreds in number, as migrants who’ve tried other routes decide the bridge is the only possible way across and join the crowd.
“My friend crossed here two days ago, why won’t you let us go now,” says one migrant to the police officer.
“Pazarkule is way over capacity. We can’t let anyone else in.”
Everyone tries to ‘help’
A migrant carrying their baby desperately tries to explain to the police that their spouse is in Pazarkule and they need to meet them.
“No crossing,” an officers says, unflinching.
The police in the encampment are explaining to the crowd that Doyran Village on the banks of the Evros is a better passage to Europe, and tries to convince them to leave the encampment.
One officer points to an empty bus waiting in the encampment.
“You can take this bus for free if you want. Go to the village. Try the river. Don’t just wait here for nothing. Those at the gate are taking the buses to the village. We’re trying to help you.”
After a little while, someone comes out of the empty bus, talking to the migrants and saying they intend to help.
“I just helped 20 people cross the river. I can carry you across with a dinghy.”
“Trip to Doyran village is 30 TL. A seat on the dinghy is 120 TL. So it’s 150 TL one way for one person. What more could you want?”
The driver reassures potential passengers that the trip is safe, it’s accompanied by Turkish soldiers.
A group in the crowd, mostly migrants from African countries, make a deal about the price and methods and get on the bus.
Travel on vehicles of the provincial migration authority
After the bus departs, the officers get impatient and tell the crowd they will intervene unless they disperse.
This encourages about 10 people to take another bus to the village after all.
The bus heads toward Doyran Village but takes a detour to Elçili Village because the former is overcrowded.
A document sitting right next to the driver reads “Edirne Provincial Migrant Management.”
The driver says that the vehicle belongs to a subcontractor for the directorate.
“Normally I take migrants that are detained to the repatriation centers. For the past few days, I’ve been driving them to the border instead of the centers. The company is paid for the number of people they take to the border.”
As for a take on the government’s open border policy, he says that Ankara is independent as a government.
“We never ask anyone before we do anything. Now we’re a strong country.”
The bus is approached by someone on a motorcycle as it enters Elçili Village who says that foreign press is in the village, and the group should go somewhere else.
The bus keeps moving straight ahead for a while before stopping by the Evros.
A group of men welcome the migrants who aren’t sure where they are.
The group point to their dinghy and explain how they transport migrants across the river, but the driver wants to talk to the men alone for a minute.
A few Greek soldiers become visible across the river, laying on the ground and staking out the scene with weapons in hand.
‘Not traffickers, just regular citizens helping migrants’
A young person who tried to cross the day before, but was returned by Greek police who also confiscated his belongings, tells his story.
He’s tired, but will try again after getting some rest.
One of the men offering help overhears the young man say “smuggler” while telling his story.
“Don’t say that,” says the man. “We’re not smugglers or human traffickers, just regular citizens helping migrants.”
Meanwhile, a military vehicle approaches.
“You can’t film, this is a military zone!,” yells a soldier who gets out of the vehicle and asks Turkish citizens to leave the area.
Migrants who arrived in Edirne from all over Turkey are eventually convinced to cross into Europe on a dinghy on the Evros River.
Not too long ago, migrants were facing the threat of being detained in repatriation centers or of being deported. It was almost a migrant hunt.
Now, they are being delivered to an unknown future by government officials and “helpful citizens.”