Syrian refugees are now paying smugglers to take them back

A Syrian refugee in northern Greece

On a humid August afternoon in northern Greece, a group of Syrian families hauling duffel bags and day packs stumbled down a forested hillside. Exhausted and nervous, they gathered in a gravel parking lot across from a small train station.

They could see the border just a few miles away, marked by the curving line of tall riparian trees rising out of the grassy landscape. It had taken them six months to reach this point. Their final destination was close.

The smuggler, a tall man wearing a headset, waved his hand. The families gathered up their belongings once again, took their children by the hand, and walked toward the station. They stepped one by one from the cement platform onto the train tracks, passing the crumpled clothes and blankets abandoned by those who made the journey before them.

On this day there were no other people in sight. They hiked along the tracks, stretching out in a single file line in the direction of the trees. The sound of crickets, screaming in the summer heat, drowned out their footsteps.

They had already crossed several borders to get this far. But this time felt significant — like the beginning of the end of their journey.

For this group of refugee families, however, the end would not be permanent safety in Germany, as they had hoped. They had arrived in Greece six months earlier, by which time Europe had closed its borders to new migrants.

After being stuck half a year in this unfamiliar country beset by its own economic misery, these Syrian families weren’t pushing north toward their dreams in Germany or beyond.

They were going back. To Syria.

In 2015, hundreds of thousands of Syrians poured over their country’s border into Turkey. From there they paid smugglers to make harrowing journeys by sea to Greece. And then took buses or trains or simply walked north to Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel had announced her country’s intention to welcome them. It was a hopeful time for millions who were searching for a way out of the brutal, multi-front conflict at home.

The optimism quickly faded, however. There was a backlash against Merkel’s policies, especially in Eastern European countries struggling to cope with the massive numbers of refugees streaming through. By March 2016 the doors to Europe had effectively swung shut, in the faces of crowds of tired refugees.

It began with a chain of EU-coordinated border closures — from Austria to Croatia to Macedonia — that shut down the primary route through the Balkans. Then on March 20, European leaders signed a controversial agreement with Turkey. Among other things, it required Greek authorities to detain new arrivals and send them back to Turkey, deemed a safe third country.

These new policies altered the destiny of the “tail-enders” — the population of asylum hopefuls who arrived to Greece after the big wave in the spring of 2016. When the borders suddenly closed, they found themselves trapped in a country burdened by its own woes and unprepared to address the needs of the thousands suddenly stalled there.

They were just as needy as the million refugees who had arrived to Europe before. But time had punished them: They were simply too late. They were unlucky.

New arrivals to the Greek islands were now taken to detention centers to wait for hearings before facing likely deportation. The tens of thousands of others already in Greece were corralled into a hastily designed network of camps scattered around the country. Life in Greece for these Syrians quickly became a daily disgrace, with no clear path to a permanent, secure location for their families to live.

Their finances long exhausted, they have languished for months in these isolated camps, waiting to access the meager legal asylum system available to them. Life here is now so bad that some believe the best way forward is to return home.

“Give me the money to pay a smuggler and I’ll go back to Syria right now,” said Thaer Al Nahir, a Syrian refugee who arrived in Greece in late February. “There the death is quick. Here we are dying slowly.”

Al Nahir’s journey to Greece began in the fall of 2015 when he prepared his family to escape from their home in Deir Ezzor, a city in Eastern Syria that has seen some of the worst fighting between ISIS, rebels and government forces.

The 39-year-old had been a policeman. He quit to avoid participating in the violence that engulfed his city. “People were doing a lot of terrible things to each other with guns,” he said. “I didn’t want any part of that. I wouldn’t join any side — not Assad, not ISIS, not the Free Syrian Army.”

He turned to farming and was able to eke out enough of a living to support his family until the war escalated. It was after a bomb struck the house next door that he decided it was no longer possible to stay. “We had to get out, for the children,” he said.

His plan, like so many others, was to go to Germany and ask for asylum. But first he had to get out of Deir Ezzor, which was surrounded by ISIS. The smugglers he paid hid the family under sheets in pick-up trucks filled with manure. Al Nahir’s wife Darin and their three children — Muhammad, 5, Abdullah, 4, and their little girl Shahid, 2 — were in one truck. The smugglers made Al Nahir get into another.

They drove through the war-wracked city and ran into armed militiamen, who forced the trucks to the side of the road. They were members of ISIS. From his truck, Al Nahir listened as a man kicked hard at the bodies hidden under the sheet in the other. He peeked out and saw one of the men pointing a machine gun at 4-year-old Abdullah. “My son, it was my son,” he remembered tearfully. “I couldn’t control myself and I jumped out to try to save him.”

The men turned their guns on Al Nahir. He ran.

The fighters abducted Al Nahir’s wife and kids. They took the family to an ISIS tribunal 40 miles away. In a moment of what might be described as luck in any other context, one of the guards at the gate — “a good man” — offered them an opportunity to escape. They ran as fast and as far as they could. It was 7 a.m.

It wasn’t until 3 p.m. that the family made it to the smuggler’s safe house. Al Nahir was there. They had all survived. It felt like a miracle.

That was the first attempt to escape Deir Ezzor. It took the family a week and four tries before they finally made it to the Turkish border.

And yet Turkey was only the beginning. Next Al Nahir had to pay another smuggler to get from Turkey to the Greek islands. On a stormy night in February the smugglers crammed his family into a rubber dinghy with 56 other refugees. It was 4 a.m., windy and raining. Soon they found themselves rocking up and down in high waves. “The boat sprung a leak and the water was up to our knees. People vomited. One woman broke her leg.”

After seven frightening hours at sea, they made it to the island of Lesbos. “Why should anyone ever have to make a trip like that?” Al Nahir asked. “There is no reason. It’s not human.”

But they had made it to Europe. The worst, they thought, was behind them. Al Nahir still had about $250 in his pocket. It was enough, he calculated, for the trip from Greece to Germany, which he had heard would take just a few days.

That was seven months ago. The money is long gone. And Al Nahir’s family remains trapped in Greece.

Al Nahir is angry at European leaders for treating the refugees in Greece “worse than dogs.” But what really gets him is the hypocrisy of a closed border policy that allows those with financial means to easily circumvent borders by hiring smugglers.

“How many people paid money to smugglers and arrived to Germany after the borders closed? And the people who don’t have money? We’re stuck in Greece. We thought before that Europe was about justice, that they were fair with everyone.”

Now he says he is worse off than he was in Syria. “We have become ridiculous, a joke.”

Syrians account for about half of the 50,000 refugees trapped in mainland Greece since the March border closings. They have two pathways to secure international protection — overt and covert.

The first step on the legal path is to register with the Greek Asylum Service. Once registered, they can apply for the EU relocation program (open to Syrians but not Afghans or Iraqis), family reunification (if they have a close family member in a European country), or asylum in Greece.

The process, however, is grueling and slow. The Greek Asylum Service was drastically underfunded and understaffed from the start. And it received only a small fraction of the supplementary budget and human resources promised by the European Union. As a result, for months it failed to register a significant number of refugees. At first the only way to register was via Skype. The system rarely functioned, causing widespread frustration among refugees like Al Nahir who would call at an appointed hour but never get through.

A second effort launched in June to enroll people in camps and at designated sites succeeded in registering 27,592 Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis and others. But still they must wait months more for a case hearing. Frustrated by the bureaucracy, thousands have chosen not to register.

Greece has long been an entry point for migrants trying to reach Europe. And it has long struggled to contend with all the asylum claims. In reaction to last year’s massive number of arrivals, the EU temporarily suspended a policy called the Dublin system, which requires the countries where migrants first arrive in Europe to be responsible for processing their asylum claims. The hope was this would relieve Greece of some of the pressure. Then in September 2015, the EU announced its emergency relocation plan to distribute 160,000 refugees from Greece and Italy proportionately among the EU’s 28 member states.

This relocation plan should have been a viable route to resettlement for Al Nahir and the thousands of other Syrians trapped in Greece.

“The idea of relocation is definitely what needed to be done,” said Eugenio Ambrosi, the European director for the International Organization for

Migration. Had it been in place in 2014, when numbers first started to spike, he noted, “We wouldn’t have had the problem we now have in Italy and Greece.”

But lack of information about the program, long wait times to apply, and the fact that applicants do not get to choose their destination country limited its appeal. And, European Union member countries mostly balked at their commitments. Out of the 160,000 it promised to relocate, as of October 6 only 4,603 have been transferred out of Greece to another European country, and 1,268 out of Italy. That’s a fulfillment rate of under 4 percent.

“The numbers are embarrassing for the European Union,” said Hugh Williamson, director of the Europe and Central Asia Division for Human Rights Watch. “Indeed it’s a farce that there’s not a greater showing of solidarity, most importantly with those who are fleeing wars who have risked their lives to come to Europe, but also toward Greece and Italy.”

The relocation program is legally binding for EU member states, but many countries are either actively or passively opposing it. Denmark and the UK opted out altogether. Hungary, Slovakia and Poland have taken a populist stance and have “used the crisis as a way of reinforcing a nationalist, xenophobic agenda,” Williamson said. Other countries have “moved into the tail wind of these populist positions as a way to put off relocating people.”

With so few countries willing to allocate places and organize the transport for the move, Williamson is doubtful the program will function any better in the coming months. Meanwhile, the poor conditions in Greece constitute a humanitarian crisis, he said, and not relocating refugees out of that situation to other EU countries is “a failure to respect their rights.”

“The deliberate negligence of the EU and its member states in providing an efficient relocation system for those seeking safety and protection is prolonging and intensifying the suffering,” said Emilie Dubuisson, advocacy director for Doctors Without Borders in Greece, which released a report in October on the dire conditions there.

“Tension and frustration is growing on a daily basis,” said Liene Veide, a spokesperson for the UNHCR in Thessaloniki. “The tough living conditions and not having clear information in terms of specific dates for next steps for the relocation — all of this is making the situation very complicated.”

With so few people getting assistance, Ambrosi said that the program was fast losing credibility. “The refugees [and migrants] who should benefit will lose faith that it will ever happen.”

Last summer, when the biggest wave of refugees since WWII was landing on the Aegean islands, Greece was in the fifth year of its own crisis — an economic meltdown so severe that the country was on the verge of being ejected from the euro zone, the economic bloc that uses the euro as its currency. The country managed to avoid the so-called “Grexit.” But it later had to sign its third multibillion-dollar bailout package, which came with yet another round of crushing austerity measures.

Stagnant growth, mounting debt, and debilitating unemployment — at 23 percent, the highest in the EU — continue to plague the country. Experts warn another bailout will likely be necessary in 2018.

The economy has shrunk 25 percent overall, a retraction that puts it on par with the Great Depression.

Greek citizens are facing staggering poverty and the breakdown of social services. The healthcare system, once considered one of the best in Europe, is in disarray. A 50 percent cut in the healthcare budget has led to shortages in everything from medicine and equipment to doctors and nurses.

Dr. Maria Ntasiou started a community medical center in Athens in 2013, one of 40 such centers in the city and 60 nationwide that attend to Greeks, immigrants, and refugees — anyone struggling with poverty and without a social safety net. The volunteer-run centers offer basic medical care and medications as well as food, clothing and other supplies. Collective kitchens run by churches and neighborhood groups that serve free food to the needy have sprung up all over the capital.

“I met so many Greeks who had good homes and jobs who became poor overnight,” she said. “They lost everything.”

Chronic unemployment coupled with rising taxes on everything from property to beer means many people just can’t pay their bills. For the 1.2 million pensioners the situation is especially acute. About 60 percent receive less than $800 a month, putting them at or below the poverty level.

Although the Greek government recently passed a law granting the unemployed and refugees access to healthcare and drugs in the public health system, Doctors Without Borders said it can’t keep up. “Hospitals in Greece are struggling to respond to the needs of both local people and migrants, mainly due to the lack of financial and human resources.”

As a physician, Ntasiou said it’s been agonizing to watch the health of the population decline since the economic crisis. Rates of heart attacks, infant mortality, asthma, TB, and depression have all risen. The suicide rate has jumped 30 percent.

Now many of the informal social programs formed to respond to the collapse of the Greek social safety net are attending to refugees as well, especially in urban centers like Athens and Thessaloniki.

Syrians are rightly wary that they could build a secure future inside Greece. They have the option to apply for permanent asylum in the country, but few choose to do so. “I really like the Greek people in general,” Al Nahir said. “But many are as poor as we are. They have nothing left to give.”

The lack of resources at Greece’s disposal is perhaps nowhere more apparent than at the makeshift camps it has set up for refugees and migrants.

For three months, Al Nahir and his family stayed in Idomeni, a village on Greece’s northern border, which quickly grew into an informal camp city of 14,000 people inside and around a train station. Some people lived in abandoned sleeper cars or found a place to sleep inside the station’s buildings. Others pitched their tents on top of the tracks. Al Nahir’s family set up in a nearby field. Others slept on cots, with hundreds crammed inside large tents set up by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).

Like all the other refugees, Al Nahir hoped the border would reopen and his family would be able to continue their journey north. But the family never made it across.

Aid organizations supplied food, clothing and basic medical services at the informal camp. The fields flooded in the rain. Snakes and scorpions were everywhere.

Life in the camp became untenable for the family in May when a protest sparked by a group of activists escalated into an all-out confrontation with Greek authorities. Police blanketed the camp in a thick cloud of tear gas. “I feel so sad I put my children in this position,” Al Nahir said, holding up a photo from that night on his mobile phone. It showed his three children, their faces wrapped in bandanas for protection. “Every time I look at this photo, I think, we escaped from Syria for this?”

“I was living in Syria full of pride,” he continued. “I was eating from what I earned. This is not a way to treat people, Shame on them.”

Word began to circulate that the Greek authorities were planning to shut down the camp. The government wanted to reopen train traffic between Greece and the Balkans. The lack of train service was costing Greek businesses millions of dollars, money the country really needed. Greece also worried about criminal activity in the camp and hoped to curtail smugglers who continued to take groups of refugees from Idomeni across the border into Macedonia illegally.

At dawn on May 27, hundreds of police officers in riot gear began clearing the camp and forcing the 10,000 or so refugees still living there to relocate to official camps run by the Greek police or military on the outskirts of Thessaloniki, about 150 miles to the south.

At 5, Muhammad was beginning to challenge his parents. He accused his father of lying about taking the family to Germany. “What can I say to him? He has the right to ask,” Al Nahir said, “because I promised to take him to Germany and educate him — not sit here with no school, waiting for handouts.”

“A young child is like Play-Doh, you can mold him. If he’s in school, then his brain will be receptive. If not, it’s impossible. I’m worried this experience will ruin his personality.”

Akmed is a Syrian refugee who before coming to Greece worked as a fashion designer in Lebanon to support his family back in Syria. He has also considered returning to Syria. “I don’t want to lie to you,” he said. “I was on the verge of going back to Syria. I would have joined Assad’s army, for the salary.”

Akmed’s family, and nine other refugee families, were living in a hotel near the train station in Thessaloniki, paid for by a program run by the UNHCR. On a hot summer evening in one corner of the building’s roof top, a rundown affair covered in tar paper and antennas that served as their gathering place, he talked about his earlier experience living in a Greek refugee camp.

Until recently, Akmed lived in Softex with his wife, 1-year-old daughter, 1-month-old son, and his sister, who is paralyzed due to a childhood disease. Softex is one of 11 refugee camps on the outskirts of Thessaloniki that were set up by the government earlier this year. “The food, the bathrooms. You can’t live like that,” he said.

“Every day groups gather to talk about going back to Syria. I know many people who would go back if they had money.” Had his family not gotten into the UNHCR program, Akmed would have been among them. But for now they are safe at the hotel, where they get three meals a day in the cafeteria alongside hotel guests. Like Al Nahir, he has applied to the relocation program and doesn’t know when or if he will hear anything. For now, the decent lodging makes it possible for him to wait.

Akmed left Syria to avoid fighting, but he said becoming a fighter with one of the groups — under Assad, ISIS, or the Free Syrian Army — is the best chance men have to earn a salary in Syria’s current economy.

He believes there is another reason Syrians are returning, however. “It’s because of the humiliation here.” He said he knew a few men from Softex who went back to become soldiers, “to feel powerful again.”

A few days later, Akmed offered to take us to Softex. “This is the mosquito zone of Thessaloniki,” the taxi driver explained, as he drove past run down warehouses and industrial parks on the way to the camp. “You can’t be outside here at night.”

We approached a large warehouse that sits in a dusty parking lot encircled by a chain-link fence. About 1,500 people, mostly Syrians, live at Softex — a former toilet paper factory. Some are housed in military tents inside the gloomy shell of a warehouse. Others live in rows of tents pitched outside on the gravel. A long line of poorly maintained portable toilets flanked one side of the building. Lights only come on at night. There is no internet. It looks more like a homeless encampment than an organized refugee camp.

Akmed and his family, including his paralyzed sister, slept in a tent outside before they moved to the hotel. “The smell in here was awful,” he said, gesturing to his former tent.

Nearby, several families gathered to talk under a tarp stretched out between tents. “Look at this food. It’s spoiled,” a man said, pointing at a pile of plastic containers filled with peas and pasta.

The food is supplied by Greek military caterers and is a source of complaint at all the 50 government camps on the mainland. Not only are the portions occasionally rotten, but as the months have passed people have lost the ability to buy their own food to supplement the repetitive menu. “Would you feed this to your dog?” a woman asked, holding up a packet of gray peas.

The early evening air was dense with mosquitoes, which people swatted away constantly. Children’s arms and faces were covered with swollen red bites. A woman held out a large, listless baby who was heavily bitten and whom she said had a fever.

Beside the appalling conditions, many complained about being broke and having no way to earn money. “Most people got here with a few hundred euros in their pocket,” said Mouhamad Yasin Allaf, 39. “No one has money left and they are starting to steal from each other.” Asylum seekers are not permitted to work in Greece, even if there were jobs available.

The night before, the group said, a fellow Syrian refugee tried to rob two Syrian women as they slept in their tent. “I started screaming and stopped him,” one woman said. “We’re tired. We just want to get out of here.” A man jumped in and said, “Here, every Syrian man has a knife in his pocket to protect himself.”

Conditions in the camps have been bad from the beginning. But in recent months, the refugees have become more vocal in their frustration. Determination to improve their lives has given way to exhaustion, humiliation and, now, rage.

“We’ve already lost everything precious to us. We have nothing to lose,” Allaf said. “If we can’t go to Germany, arrange the tickets and flights and give us everything we paid to get here and send us back to Syria.”

They shared stories of other Syrians who had given up, crossed back to Turkey, and returned to Syria. One woman showed photos of a group of people crossing the Evros River back to Turkey — a family with six children she met at the camp. They had sent her the images of their crossing. The photos showed the group floating openly in the river with no boat. They crossed, submerged in the water, holding on to a strap with empty plastic bottles tied around their waists as makeshift flotation devices.

The woman said she might leave soon, too. She said the risk of dangers at home were more appealing than the risk of dangers she faces at the camps in Greece. “I didn’t leave the war to come to another war here. I left because I needed a safe place for my children. But if that doesn’t happen, Syria is better than this.”

Allaf and others in the group all said that if they can’t get to Germany, they’ll go back to Syria. But, like Al Nahir, they said they didn’t have the money to pay a smuggler to go back, which fueled their anger even more. “Here it’s only humiliation,” Allaf said.

Since that visit to Softex, conditions there and in the other camps have only grown worse. In August, NGOs working at Softex found that children as young as seven had been sexually assaulted by “mafia” gangs inside the camp. Lack of adequate policing, especially at night, has helped contribute to rising crime and abuse. Fights break out between different nationalities living together in difficult circumstances. Women, children, and unaccompanied minors are especially vulnerable. Minors transferred from the camps to an overloaded Greek shelter system are being held in “poor and degrading conditions,” according to Human Rights Watch.

As winter approaches, “the rain and the cold make the living conditions even harder than before. Many camps have already flooded,” said Dubuisson, from Doctors Without Borders. “Hundreds of millions of euros have been poured into Greece. Despite this, the Greek authorities and the EU member states are failing to provide dignified conditions to those seeking international protection.”

An Oct. 1 letter sent by residents of Sindos Karamanlis, another camp near Softex, to Greek Minister of Migration Ioannis Mouzalis called for winterization, better food and medical services, and faster asylum processing. It addresses the sorts of problems plaguing most camps.

The feeble legal options available to refugees here, the dire conditions of the camps, and Greece’s own economic woes leave many Syrians in Greece turning to the most reliable source of help: smugglers. It’s one of the cruelest ironies of the EU’s failed asylum policies that many of the same refugees who paid thousands of dollars to smugglers to get to Greece — often selling everything they had and borrowing from friends — are now left with no other option but to pay smugglers again to leave.

At about $1,000 per person for a seat to cross from Turkey to Greece in a dangerous dinghy, the 60,000 or so refugees now in Greece contributed some $60 million to the smuggling economy. If you look at the total number of people who arrived by sea to Greece between January 2015 and July 2016 — about 1 million — those profits skyrocket to at least one billion. And that’s just for crossing the Aegean.

A ferry ticket from Turkey to Lesbos, meanwhile, costs 10 euros.

“If Europe had set up a viable screening procedure and used ferry boats to safely bring people to shore, it would have broken the business model,” said Bill Kerlick, who directs the refugee program at Human Rights Watch.

One of the main objectives EU policymakers cite for negotiating third-country migration agreements such as the EU-Turkey deal (and new ones being negotiated with Afghanistan, Libya and others) is to crush the smuggling network. But “if you want to attack smuggling and trafficking you have to take away the market they have,” said the International Office of Migration’s Ambrosi. “The market is created by the absence of a legal channel to come to Europe.”

It’s difficult to estimate how many refugees and migrants in Greece have paid smugglers to get to Europe, or to go back to Turkey and Syria. But the stories are numerous. This is not a hidden operation. Every refugee in every camp or hotel or city park knows where the smugglers are and how to contact them. If you have the money, it’s easier and quicker than registering and applying for relocation.

For the right price, in just a few days a smuggler can provide a refugee with fake or stolen identification that can be used to leave Greece. European authorities catch many of these people. But some get through. One Syrian refugee said he tried flying out of the Athens airport with a fake identification 17 times before he finally succeeded. He’s now in Austria. We spoke to three other Syrians who succeeded in flying out of Greece on their first try. They now have asylum in Germany.

So the business of smuggling thrives.

A recent report from the Overseas Development Institute found that the percentage of asylum seekers arriving in Europe by illegal means is on the rise. The report compared the number of people arriving by overt sea routes closely monitored by the IOM and UNHCR with the number of actual asylum applications in European countries and found a growing gap. In 2015, the researchers found that 35 percent of the 1.7 million asylum applicants arrived covertly — including by plane, using false documents, clandestinely by land, by bribing border officials, or by overstaying visas.

In 2016, in the wake of the EU-Turkey deal and higher border security, fewer have arrived by sea and fewer have applied overall. But 65 percent of the 890,000 projected applications will be from people who arrive by covert means, according to the report, often by paying a smuggler. About one third, or 197,000, will be Syrians. Some of these will be Syrians with access to cash who were able to sidestep the broken asylum process in Greece using a well-connected smuggler, and a dose of good luck.

For Syrians like Al Nahir, however, paying a smuggler about $3,000 per person for his family of five to get to Germany by air with a fake identification is not an option. That’s why he and others are considering the depressing prospect of paying smugglers much less to go the other way.

It’s not known how many Syrian refugees have left Greece to go home or to Turkey. A UNHCR spokesperson acknowledged that Syrians returning to their country is “an interesting new trend” but had no concrete numbers. The Greek police monitor irregular exits across the border to Turkey. But they declined repeated requests for an interview.

In the first eight months of 2016, about 4,000 refugees — mostly Afghans, Iraqis, and Iranians — traveled back to their country of origin through a voluntary return program operated by the International Organization for Migration in Greece.

“Most realize that Europe and Greece are not the promised land they imagined,” an IOM spokesperson said about their motivations for returning. “And it’s harder to get out of Greece since the borders closed. They realize they don’t have a future.”

Incredibly, Syrians don’t qualify for the program because their country is considered too dangerous. The spokesperson said IOM was aware generally that “there are people trying” to get back to Syria but didn’t know how many.

The small Greek town of Didimoticho on the Greece-Turkey border is a starting point for Syrians trying to cross back. In August, several men buying cigarettes at a kiosk by the bus station spotted our Syrian translator.

“Hey, what are you doing here?” one of them asked him in Arabic. “Where do you want to go?”

“Turkey,” the translator replied. “Can I do it with 100 euros?”

“Are you kidding? It’s 250,” they said. “That’s what people are paying. If you want to go for 100 you will go in a shitty boat and you will drown.”

The smuggler told him not to worry about getting caught. They will just send you back, he said. “It’s like a game.” The smuggler laughed. “It’s nothing. I go back and forth all the time.”

At the nearby train station, two Greek men in overalls who staffed the local ambulance service in a dilapidated building said that until recently they had seen about 100 refugees a day at the station. But since the attempted coup in Turkey, they had seen fewer. “A group every other day or so,” they said. They were reluctant to say more.

Reticence to discuss the refugee traffic in the town was typical. People acknowledged there were refugees here, but not much else about where they might be staying, or what their destination might be. Didimoticho, and the entire border region in general, is the most militarized area in Greece. Both the army and the police have a big presence here and are the largest employers.

At our hotel, a sympathetic employee also thought our Syrian translator, who was also a refugee, might be looking for a smuggler. “Be careful,” she told him. “This hotel is filled with police and FRONTEX employees.” FRONTEX is the European border patrol agency. It was another sign that residents here were aware of the reverse-smuggling traffic.

Back in Athens, Sahib Acaracs, a 20-year-old Kurdish refugee from Aleppo, said he tried five times to cross back to Turkey, but was turned back by police every time. He wanted to leave because he had not been able to register for asylum and didn’t see any future for himself in Greece. He was out of money and didn’t know what he would do next.

Others have had better luck. I sat with a Syrian refugee friend in Athens as he texted with a Syrian man he met in Idomeni who was back in Aleppo. The man said he had crossed the Evros river easily in a boat with about 75 other people. He said others just swam across.

Median Hilal is a Syrian refugee living in Sindos, one of the camps in the mosquito infested industrial zone around Thessaloniki. His daughter and her husband were also living there but returned to Syria in July. “Her husband knew a smuggler who arranged everything,” Hilal said. “They walked two hours in the forest and found the boat.” The couple had planned to go to Germany with Hilal and the rest of the family but “it was so difficult living here, too much psychological pressure,” he explained. Even with all the problems in Syria, Hilal said his daughter is “better than she was in Idomeni or here at Sindos.”

It is late October at a camp in Kavala, northeastern Greece. Ali Borsan, 47, and his nephew, 17, are shivering at night. For months they’ve been promised heaters. “It’s especially hard for the ill people and children,” Borsan said.

When Borsan arrived to Kavala in March of this year there were 400 other refugees living there. Now there are fewer than 100. Some people couldn’t tolerate conditions in the camp, a warren of military tents packed into a former rock quarry. They left to try their luck in Athens or other camps. Others had enough money to pay smugglers and are now in Germany. And, according to Borsan, at least seven families gave up and returned to Syria.

The families went back because they couldn’t endure more waiting in unbearable conditions, but also because when they finally received news of their relocation application — it wasn’t good. They would be sent to Romania, Lithuania or Bulgaria. “They prefer to go back to Turkey or Syria,” Borsan said, “because they hear from other refugees who went before them to Romania that conditions are very bad for refugees, plus there’s a high amount of racism.”

Borsan still hopes he and his nephew will be relocated to Germany. If they get assigned to Romania, or aren’t sent to the same place, he doesn’t know what he will do. “I don’t want us to lose another year from our lives in the camps of Greece,” he said.

Borsan doesn’t want to risk putting his nephew in the hands of smugglers. But he said that in some ways smugglers show more mercy than the authorities and politicians. “At least they get you where you want to go.”

For Dubuisson of Doctors Without Borders, it’s a disgrace that traumatized refugees who came to Europe to escape war are returning because they didn’t get the protection they deserve. “People are not supposed to go back to war-torn countries where they already faced harsh conditions,” she said. “The Greek authorities have to live up to their responsibilities in terms of assistance to a population in danger in its own territory and provide, with the support of EU member states, adequate response based on individual needs.”

Al Nahir was finally able to apply for relocation — but doesn’t know how much longer he will have to wait, or where his family might be sent. He hopes it will work out because it’s his only legal option. The rate for paying smugglers to take his family north with fake passports or IDs is totally out of reach. “I can’t even buy my kids chips or ice cream.”

Nahir’s home town of Deir Ezzor remains a dangerous war zone. Seven people, including his cousin’s husband, were killed in August when a bomb hit a house close to where Al Nahir’s parents live. Yet he says going back is a very real option for him if relocation doesn’t come through soon. He says he can’t survive in Greece much longer. “If you care about our kids, we have to go forward or we have to go back.”

“I just want to go back to my country. We’re thinking about this morning, noon and night.”

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