DIDIMOTICHO, Greece—Europe seemed like the promised land, worth risking their lives to reach. But in a muddy field on the northern edge of Greece, their dreams died. Now, dozens of Syrian refugees are risking their lives again but in the opposite direction—paying smugglers to take them back to Turkey, and heading home.
Rather than brave the often treacherous waves of the Aegean again, they face the dangerous currents of the Evros River, which runs along the Greek-Turkish border. Each night, groups of migrants and refugees huddle at the railway station of the small border town of Didimoticho, about 3 kilometers (2 miles) from the frontier, setting up small tents and waiting for their chance to cross.
Among them is Atia Al Jassem, a 27-year-old Syrian barber from Damascus who is heading east with his wife and 1-year-old daughter after spending months stuck on the Greek-Macedonian border, watching his hopes of reaching Europe ebb away.
“I am going to Turkey, I do not want Europe any more. Finished,” he says, sitting in a small park near the railway station in Thessaloniki, Greece’s main northern city, where he, his 20-year-old wife Yasmine Ramadan and their daughter Legine, who they call Loulou, spend what they hope will be their last night in the country.
“We are really tired. We’re destroyed and I have a baby. I ask God to help me get back to Turkey,” he says. “In Syria under the bombs we would be better off than here.”
The family arrived in Greece on Feb. 24, crossing the Aegean and then making their way north. But their journey to Germany was cut short at the Greek-Macedonian border.
Balkan and European countries increasingly tightened entry restrictions at the start of the year, before shutting their land borders to refugees completely in March. That trapped about 57,000 people in Greece, a country enduring a six-year financial crisis and with unemployment running at around 24 percent. Few refugees want to settle here.
Al Jassem and his family stayed for months in Idomeni, a sprawling impromptu refugee camp that sprang up on the Greek-Macedonian border. Authorities evacuated the camp last month, and the family were moved to an official camp with thousands of others.
But months of living rough had sapped their morale and their resolve. They gave up the dream of a life in Germany.
“We did not expect we were going to be treated as such in Europe,” said Al Jassem. “We thought they will be humane, looking after us and after our children, protect our children. We though we will be helped, but we found the opposite. Europe has no feeling for us at all.”
They decided to head to Turkey, where Al Jassem’s brother lives. But like many others, they found there was no easy way back. Syrians cannot be officially returned to their war-ravaged country, and the legal path to Turkey would be lengthy and bureaucratic. So many opt for smugglers, who migrants say now charge cut-price rates of just a few hundred euros instead of thousands to be taken in the opposite direction.
“Recently we have observed a reverse flow of migrants and refugees coming from Idomeni toward our northern borders,” said Ilias Akidis, head of the police union of Didimoticho. “From what they tell us, they are trying to cross to Turkey … because they have relatives there or because they want to head back to their country.”
Didimoticho deputy mayor Ioannis Topaloudis said authorities have been seeing around 20-40 people heading toward the Turkish border each day. With a fence sealing the small section of land border, the only option to those without the correct documentation is to take their chances across the river. Over the years, the Evros’ current has claimed many migrant lives.
Authorities stop those they find. Police say they have detained about 150 migrants trying to cross illegally into Turkey over the past two months. In mid-May, police caught five Syrians aged between 23 and 52 trying to row across the river in a dinghy.
“This season the Evros (river) is very dangerous. Because of the rains, the water level is very high,” said Akidis. “They are always trying to go back. It is very dangerous. They don’t succeed because we also are preventing them from crossing, but for their own reasons they keep trying.”
Among those giving up on hopes of a life in Europe was Majd Hamed, a 21-year-old fine arts student also from Damascus. After three months in Idomeni, he decided in mid-May to head home.
“I want to go to Syria and continue my studies in the Fine Arts School. Even if the (European) borders open, I’m going back. I’m very angry with the Europeans for this situation we’ve been living here,” he said, sitting outside the train carriages where he had been sleeping in Idomeni before the camp was evacuated.
Hamed says he sought help from U.N. agencies to return home, but was told it wasn’t possible.
“They told me that it’s not safe for me to go back to Syria,” he said. So he sought out the alternative.
Armed with a map with Didimoticho marked out, he was heading to Thessaloniki to catch a train to the border. “From there I’m going to cross the river, as others from Syria have told me,” he said. He aimed to fly from Turkey to Lebanon and make his way home to Damascus.
“I never tried to cross the border with Macedonia illegally,” he says. “I wanted to get to Germany legally, but now I’m forced to try to return to my country in this way.”
Some lucky few do manage to take a legal route. Alia Mohamad, a 21-year-old from Aleppo, was heading with her husband and barely 2-month-old son Uday to Thessaloniki to catch a flight to Turkey with tickets sent by her sister, who was getting married in Turkey and had officially invited them over.
The young family had spent three months in Idomeni. “It is not possible to continue like this and I see it is impossible to get to Europe,” Mohamad said.
After the wedding, they aim to return to Syria.
“We have no more money, and the situation here is bad also for the baby,” said her 23-year-old husband Mahmud Kusa Ali. “We have decided to return to our country.”
They will settle down about 70 kilometers from their hometown of Aleppo. “It is safer there,” he said.