“That actually looks like the road we walked” yousif says, as he looks at the photos of my hike to the Greek North-Macedonian border

Yousif © Fortress Europe


“In performing of its tasks, the European Border and Coast Guard shall ensure that no person is disembarked in, forced to enter, conducted to, or otherwise handed over or returned to, the authorities of a country in contravention of the principle of non-refoulement, (…).” 

EU Border Guard Regulation (updated Frontex) Article 34
What to do with migrants who enter the EU illegally?

A NOTE, BEFORE THE STORY starts. This first chapter is a reconstruction of the border crossing of a young Kurd I met in Greece. Through interview after interview, we recreated the scenes, every detail coming directly from Yousif. Names were changed for anonymity. 

The early afternoon casts a golden glow over Istanbul as 5 o’clock comes and goes. Cold, winter rain trickles on the roofs of majestic mosques and dilapidated neighbourhoods, interlinked by busy, narrow streets. In his apartment, Yousif impatiently waits by the door. A light backpack hangs from his shoulders, carrying a water bottle, a pack of plain biscuits and a set of clean clothes for when they arrive. It’s better to walk around Greece wearing fresh clothes rather than the muddy ones from the hike, someone had suggested.
                 All 13 people who stayed in the apartment with him are nervously gathered in the small living room. This is where Yousif slept on the couch the past month under a smelly, used blanket from the travellers before him. On the floor by his side had been his nephews, 14-year old Eylo and 16 year-old Hozan. It his Yousif’s task to safely help them cross the border, so that they can be reunited with their father in Belgium. Yousif’s much older cousin, Uthman, occupied the second couch in the room, and some other families were split between two bedrooms. As Yousif is standing there besides Eylo, with a racing heart and sweaty palms, he is sincerely hoping he will not have to return to this place again after tonight.

It’s Tuesday, January 9th, 2018. Yousif, only 20 years old, has been in Istanbul for about a month now. He and his nephews flew in from the busy Iraqi capital, Baghdad, as close to Europe as they could get without a Schengen visa. It’s only much later that Yousif will realise he might have been able to secure a student visa through the engineering department where he studied. Should’ve, could’ve, would’ve. In Istanbul, Uthman, his cousin, had arranged a smuggler to guide all four of them across the border into Greece, as well as an apartment in the seaside neighbourhood named Aksaray, where they could pass the time until they left. Aksaray is known for its smuggling network and houses many of the migrants who are passing though. It’s a lucrative business. It cost Yousif 6,000 euros to get him, Eylo and Hozan across the border, and another 400 made up their share of the rent for the apartment.
                They had spent a boring December exploring Istanbul, almost like tourists if it hadn’t been for their remarkable daily ritual: Uthman messaging them each night that they had to get ready to leave, only to cancel later. “Too much police at the border” was the constant refrain. A couple of days ago, much to their surprise, they finally left for the first time. But their driver got cold feet, dropped them off at a gas station at the outskirts of Istanbul and never picked them up again. They had to call a cab to drive them back to Aksaray.

Yousif © Fortress Europe

Uthman’s phone rings. It’s the smuggler. He answers and relays the instructions. The first two of their group have to walk down the dim lit stairs. Outside, a guy in a black jacket and jeans will be waiting for them by the door. Two by two and with a hundred metres of distance between each pair they have to follow him, so they don’t attract unnecessary attention. When his turn arrives and he walks past the shops that have become so familiar over the past month, Yousif is immediately aware of the absurdity of the situation. People pass by, groceries in hand, on their way home, while he is preparing to attempt a border-crossing. Walking with their backpacks it seems so obvious what they are doing and he feels tense, worried that someone might call the police.

A van is waiting for them 5 minutes from where they lived, in a quiet industrial area. It’s deserted. One older man is working at a gas station on the other side of the road, but he minds his own business. The doors of the van are open, like it’s rushing them, and the motor is running. In the back of the van sit two Pakistani guys, a single mother, a Syrian family and a couple more people, eager for them to get in. Once they manage to cram the now 30 of them into the bare metal back of the van, the door slides shut, and they never see the guy who led them there again.It’s an uncomfortable journey. 

For four hours Yousif alternates between a squatted and seated position with the Pakistani guy next to him, to allow the older guys more space to sit. The thoughtful Pakistani, no older than Yousif himself, hardly speaks a word of English. There is the constant worry among everyone that this driver too will drop them in the middle of nowhere, like the previous one did. 



Yousif © Fortress Europe

After what seems like forever, the van slows to a halt and the driver opens their door. Through the night’s rainy clouds Yousif can make out some stars. It’s dark outside, even though it can’t be later than 10pm. According to Uthman, who is in charge of all their communications with the smuggler, the walk to Greece will take something like 2 hours. Knowing this, Yousif and the boys had eagerly finished their biscuits on the way and climb out the car full of energy, ready to go. They step onto a paved, unlit road in the countryside. It slopes down on both sides and as the van drives off, they clamper down to hide in the bald bushes below. They made it out of Istanbul! Panting and excited, the group turns their attention to Uthman.
                  A little awkwardly, Uthman admits that he has no idea what to do from here. He takes out his phone, and calls the smuggler. “Look around,” their guy on the other end of the line says, “Do you see the brown-skinned guy?” Uthman looks to one of the two Pakistani, who seems to be gesturing. He is a little older than the guy Yousif was sitting next to in the van, probably in his late-20s. “Follow him.” 

“Wait,” the Pakistani says in broken English, as the group turns to him. “Wait, boat.” They can’t get any more out of him, but it becomes clear that they have to wait for a second van that will arrive with their boat. They sit down on the moist earth. Rain is trickling down from the black sky and through the mist they can see lights at the horizon. “Greece… Unan…” Their guide points out, using the Arab name for the country.
           In the cold, Yousif’s sister in law Nisma pulls little Abdul closer to her chest. Abdul was born three months ago in Iraq and is unaware of the life changing border-crossing he is about to make. 


Diavata Refugee camp, near Thessaloniki. It’s in a camp like this that yousif will be living for some months after he arrives in Greece. 

Yousif © Fortress Europe

Back at the apartment, Nisma gave him a little bit of liquid sedative to keep him asleep. The hike is dangerous enough as it is. They can’t risk little Abdul crying and giving them away. 

They wait for about an hour, silently listening to the occasional car rushing by overhead, until their boat arrives. It’s a grey, folded rubber boat, deflated, and not heavy, paddles and a pump folded into it. Yousif doesn’t understand why they didn’t just bring it with them from Istanbul. The older of the two Pakistani grabs it and slings it over his shoulder. The younger one, clearly part of the smuggler’s team too, helps him out. The group heads off.

It’s nearing midnight now. They’ve hiked for about an hour when they can hear the rush of water in the distance. Soon the bushes make way for a grassy riverbed. They spread out the boat on the wet grass and take turns pumping it up. Yousif stands at the water’s edge and gazes into the pitch black depths. It’s a good 30 metres wide and about 2-3 metres deep. Drops of rain stir the surface, but the stream is calm. 

Video copied from AP news, I claim no rights. 

The river Evros marks the border between Turkey and Greece. In 2019 at least 12 people drowned in it. 7 by 7, they get into the wobbly boat. Yousif keeps Eylo and Hozan close to him and volunteers for the first batch. The two guides climb in too and start paddling. It’s not easy to cross the stream, it takes them about 20 minutes one way.
                 On the other side, they find a boat that a previous group left, and the guides take it with them back. Still, even using two boats, the process is slow. Yousif’s body rapidly cools down as he loiters by the riverbank, waiting for all thirty of them to arrive. He is wearing a waterproof ski jacket he brought from Baghdad, but the chilly January air creeps through the seams and he shivers. He is relieved when the last person steps ashore two hours later. Like the previous group, they leave the boats behind in the mud and walk into the dark foliage.

Another photo yousif picks from my collection

Yousif © Fortress Europe

They walk through fields and forest, their way illuminated by the stars, until they arrive at some train tracks. Their guide seems to become a little tense, more watchful. He places a finger against his lips and urges them to be quiet as they make their way through the tall grass and up over the tracks.
             Only half of the group passed the railroad when suddenly the guide gestures heavily and throws himself between the tall blades of grass. “Police!” He whispers loudly. Within a moment, the whole group has disappeared in the wet field, invisible in the darkness. Yousif lies face down, his heart racing. He hears a car approach, not even 50 metres away from them. It slows down and stops. He hears a door open. 

Every day, migrants walk through this exact field, and arrivals intercepted along the way have been made to explain the authorities what routes they took. It takes no more than two cops to discover and arrest them to risk being sent back to where they came from, although officially they can’t be sent back to Turkey without a fair process (principle of non-refoulement).
               Through the grass, Yousif sees two shadows walk around what seems like a regular car from this distance. No sirens, no searchlights. It could have been a regular car. But what would a regular car be doing here at 5 in the morning, stopping at this field? Then he hears the doors slam shut again, and the car drives off. Shaky, he lets the relief sink in and stays down for another minute. Then, one by one, people start emerging from the grass. He gets up on his feet and they walk on, as if nothing happened. 

To Yousif’s great discontent, the horizon starts brightening. It’s almost 8 in the morning. Light means they will be easier to spot. He is exhausted and hungry. Since he had finished the biscuits on their way to the border, he has nothing left to eat. Uthman’s estimate of a two-hour walk is clearly off. Yousif later finds out that for some migrants, the crossing took no more than a 45 minute, while others walked for a day or even more. It depends on the smuggler. 
          Maybe Uthman didn’t know any better. But Yousif is slightly suspicious when, an hour later, as they stop, Uthman is able to produce a couple of sandwiches, as if he were going on a casual picknick. 

Yousif © Fortress Europe

And he is annoyed, not only because he wasn’t able to prepare himself well, but also because he wasn’t able to bring enough food for Eylo and Hozan. 

They are standing in the middle of a forest, without any landmarks around, yet the guides seem to know exactly where they are. In his broken English, he says: “No car. Wait. Sun.” And he points upwards. Confusion spreads. What does he mean? Uthman steps forwards, as the Pakistani produces a Nokia and dials a number. It’s the only phone allowed in the group, out of fear that some advanced technology of the border guards could intercept smartphone signals. Uthman takes the phone and is relieved when he hears the familiar voice of the smuggler on the other end. When he hangs up he seems upset. “They refuse to pick us up until the sun goes down. We’re staying here.”

Yousif’s own footage from the day in the forest

The day is spent in frustration. Yousif doesn’t know what is worse, the hunger or the cold. Eylo and Hozan receive sandwiches from the others, but Yousif declines. He walks around to warm up his muscles, but to no avail.
           With his phone offline, he records a video of their situation. Eylo and Hozan lie on the leaf-covered ground, their heads resting on their bags and their coats pulled tightly around them. To ensure anonymity, the video below only shows the forest itself.

Neo-Nazis are a common phenomenon in Greece. Political polarisation is rampant, and not without consequences for the treatment of migrants. 

The hills around the North-Macedonian border. Again, it reminds Yousif of the paths he walked himself.

Yousif © Fortress Europe

Baby Abdul receives another shot of the liquid to keep him drowsy and silent. They wait, hoping that they won’t be abandoned here.

The first car arrives at 7. The sun has just set and, without a warning, their guide calls 5 people from their group and points them to a road close by where, indeed, a car is waiting for them. Yousif stays behind. Two hours pass. Then, their guide calls them again. But instead of only 5 people, he now gathers 13 of them. As it turns out, he has the ambitious plan of cramming all 13 in a regular silver Opel. It’s clear that won’t work.
           Considering it took two hours for the next car to arrive, Yousif has made up his mind: no matter what, he is going to get out with this car and he is not leaving Eylo and Hozan behind. Elbowing his way to the front of the group, he grabs hold of the door and pushes his nephews in. He has never been this selfish and aggressive before and he feels ashamed of himself. This is not only for him though, it’s for the safety of his nephews.
            They manage to cram 11 people in the car, the rest stays behind. Yousif later hears that the last car only appeared at 9 the next morning, when the sun was already up. The smuggler only conceded because Nadia, little Abdul’s mother, refused to give the baby an extra shot of sedative and threatened to light a fire to warm the baby. Yousif’s night time drive to Thessaloniki takes a couple of hours and as his body warms up, he d0zes off a little. 

The driver drops them off under a bridge, in an industrial area a couple of hours outside of Thessaloniki’s city centre. They quickly change from their wet, filthy clothes into the dry, clean ones they brought. Yousif switches on his phone. It’s the middle of the night. He doesn’t have a Greek sim card yet, so he can’t message anyone. The group splits up. Yousif, the two boys, Uthman and three more of their group start walking along the street, in the direction of what they think is the city centre. Starved, they dive into the first roadside restaurant they find, Cantina Pit stop. They accidentally order pizza topped with pork, but don’t care about religious diet for the moment. They’re just hungry. 

Once they’ve satisfied their appetite, they trudge to the city centre and doze off into a heavy sleep at a shopfront next to the Red Cross building, not caring about what people might think of them. The two hotels they tried didn’t want to take them without papers.

Yousif © Fortress Europe

Yousif wakes up early the next morning, January 11th, and rubs the sleep from his eyes. It’s sunny and freezing cold. He picks up a Wi-Fi connection from a café and calls ‘everyone’, his mom at the top of the list. “We made it!” Of course, this is only the beginning. The Red Cross sends them to Arsis, a legal office, and on to 4 different police stations. Finally, someone is willing to arrest them so they can receive their first paper, a Police Note, one that will protect them from deportation for a month. From then on, waiting defines their lives. 

Waiting until after the weekend, so they can talk to someone at the Djavata refugee camp to ask for accommodation. 

Until April, before they manage to apply for asylum and receive their temporary identity cards. 

May, to hear Eylo and Hozan qualified for reunification with their father in Belgium. 

November that year, 2018, before the two kids are actually allowed to leave Greece. 

December 2019, a year later, for Yousif’s official refugee interview. 

March 2020, over two years after he arrived, to hear Yousif received refugee status in Greece. 

At the time of writing, he is awaiting his travel documents. Once he’s got those, he can finally visit his brother and nephews in Belgium. And me in Holland of course. When I ask him what he is feeling when he tells me this story, he bluntly says: Pride. He admits that he’s not sure whether he would have the guts to do it all again. “It’s really risky. I’m so proud that my 20-year old self was able to take on that responsibility, to guide my nephews through. 

But if I had to do it again right now? I don’t know… Maybe.”

What to do with migrants who enter the EU illegally? People like Yousif. The stickers and catchphrases I see scattered around European cities give me two options: Either welcome them all or close the borders. I’ve wondered, is either really feasible? What would they look like when pursued? And are there alternatives? 

The quote at the top of the page contains the basis of the current policy: People cannot be pushed back to where they came from (‘non-refoulement’). What happens instead is that they enter a selection process that decides whether they fulfil the criteria for refugee status. What I have found is that the essence of the debate isn’t about the opening or closing of the physical borders, but rather the paperwork that follows once someone has crossed into Europe. Who gets refugee status? Where should refugees live? What should their lives look like? Over the course of the next pages, we will explore these questions in more depth. Let’s first look at why these questions are important at all. 

When the borders between the EU countries were removed (and the Schengen Area created) decades ago, someone with a visa in one EU country could suddenly move around freely inside the EU. Tourists, students, criminals, businessmen, but also refugees, could move from country to country once had a Schengen visa. Countries no longer controlled who could enter their territories. 
            To exercise some control, countries decided to carefully select the people who could enter Europe. They collectively agreed that this includes refugees and designed a system to select and care for them that is similar across the whole of Europe. So Greece can’t decide by itself what to do with Yousif: It has to follow the European rules.

These rules are written down in what is like a book with 5 chapters, each roughly covering one aspect of the asylum system. It is called CEAS, the Common European Asylum System and was created in 1999 (to be continuously updated later). 

The contents of this ‘book’ is what the essence of the asylum debate is about. 

A snapchat to the family on January 11, 2018

To the right of this red cross branch, Yousif and his nephews spend their first night in Thessaloniki