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Thousands of migrants and refugees have gathered at the Turkish-Greek border, desperate to make it into the European Union. DW correspondent Tunca Ögreten spent two days there, and reports a volatile situation.
"Life in Turkey is very tough. As soon as they open the gates, I'll make my way to Germany," says Muhammed, who is from Afghanistan and looks much younger than his 18 years. He's carrying two small bags with some clothes and snacks. Nothing else. He wants to cross over into Greece, but tells me he has no idea what to expect, how arduous the journey will be, how many days it will take — and whether he will actually make it over the border.
Read more: Refugee crisis in Greece: Anger and foreboding grow on Lesbos
I bumped into Muhammed on a street in Istanbul's Zeytinburnu neighborhood, where many other migrants have gathered. Most are from Afghanistan and Pakistan; I only came across one Syrian refugee. Muhammed still hasn't decided whether he will actually attempt the journey to Greece. He knows Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is using the migrant situation to exert pressure on the EU.
But when, on February 27, Erdogan announced Turkey would no longer prevent people from crossing the border into Europe, many migrants in Zeytinburnu sprang into action. Taxis, buses and cars now line the street, with drivers advertising trips to the Turkish city of Edirne, about 220 kilometers (140 miles) away near the borders with Greece and Bulgaria.
Muhammed, from Afghanistan, is one of thousands of migrants who have gathered at the Turkish-EU border in recent days
Muhammed and his five friends also want to head to Edirne. So he haggles with one of the drivers, who says he will charge €22 ($24) per person for the three-hour journey — a price the group is unwilling to pay.
I ask about Muhammed's family. He tells me they're currently in the town Nigde, in central Turkey. There, he explains, "they are working for a pittance." Muhammed has been doing various odd jobs in Istanbul and is frustrated by the experience. He says that "either they fire us so they don't have to pay up, or they withhold some of the money we were promised."
Muhammed and his friends eventually agree on a fare — €16 each — with the driver, who promises to drive them straight to the border. But he warns that "if the authorities catch us, I will pretend not to know you. Otherwise, I'll get in trouble."
Read more: Migrants stuck on EU doorstep: What is Germany doing?
Two hellish days at the border
The group sets off in a gray VW van, and I follow behind in my car. After just 50 kilometers, Muhammed calls me to say that his driver is feeling nervous because I keep tailing them. So he tells me we should meet in Edirne. "Otherwise," he adds, "he will kick us out of his car and keep our money."
Along the way I spot dozens of other vehicles filled with migrants, including women and children, all heading toward Edirne. A few kilometers from the Pazarkule border crossing, I'm stopped by large group of police. Brusquely, one of them asks me what I want. I reply that I am a journalist, and hand over my international press card. He wants to know whether I'm from Turkey or abroad. I tell him I'm from Turkey and, seemingly pleased with my answer, he lets me drive on.
More than 1,000 migrants have gathered at the border crossing. I don't see any Turkish law enforcement officials anywhere. Migrants are sitting on the ground, with some burning branches to keep warm. There is a fair bit of smoke in the air, and the scene is oddly reminiscent of a dystopian movie.
Some migrants have managed to get past the barbed wire and move into the border strip separating Turkey and Greece. But just 100 meters (330 feet) on, Greek border guards have taken up position. Whenever anyone get close to the border they fire tear gas in their direction, forcing them to flee back to the Turkish side. The air is now thick with smoke and tear gas, which along with rain and intense cold defines my time at the border.
In my two days there I see babies crying in their mothers' laps, and people suffering from desperation, hopelessness and hunger. I meet three men in their late fifties on the night after my arrival. Judging by their accents, they're from Istanbul. Their clothes are relatively clean, so they must have arrived recently. One of them asks which border crossing will be opened, to which I reply that there is no plan to do so.
They won't tell me where exactly they are from, and I get the feeling they are ordinary Turks trying to mix in with the migrants to cross over into the EU. The men then ponder crossing the border by boat.
In the early morning hours of my second day I get a call from Muhammed. He tells me they've bought an inflatable plastic boat for 800 lira (€120/$130) and are now waiting for the right moment to paddle across the Evros River that marks the border to Greece. He sends me his location, hunkered down by a patch of forest, and I make my way over to see him. On the opposite side of the river, only 50 meters away, armed Greek police officers are vigilantly monitoring the situation.
Read more: Will the EU-Turkey refugee deal collapse?
As Muhammed waits, he snacks on a Turkish bagel and then lights a cigarette. As I'm about to take his picture, he gets angry. "What are you doing, brother?! Don't film me! If my mother sees this, she will be very sad," he says, adding: "She doesn't know I smoke, either."
Whenever migrants get close to the border, Greek border guards fire tear gas in their direction
The teenagers are using their phones to pick the best route across the river. Muhammed, meanwhile, tells the other migrants gathered with them that so far about 100 people have made it to the other side. A far larger number, however, were caught and sent back.
Eventually I return to Pazarkule border crossing, where some 3,000 migrants are now camped out. There are people from all corners of the world: Africans, Iranians, Pakistanis, Palestinians and many Afghans. But I meet very few Syrian refugees, however. Tensions with Greek border guards, meanwhile, have intensified.
As ever more migrants make their way to the border, Greek officers fire more tear gas into the crowd. Right in front of my eyes, five people are severely injured — one of them is still a child. The migrants react angrily, with some throwing stones at the border guards.
Amid the chaotic, violent skirmishes, a tall young man throws his hands in the air. In fluent Turkish, English and Persian he yells: "We've had enough of war! Stop throwing stones and sit down. We want another life."
I joined the Ocean Viking crew in mid-February, setting sail for two weeks along the Libyan coast. As the sole journalist on board, I aimed to document how Doctors Without Borders and SOS Mediterranee conduct their rescue operations and the plight of the refugees they saved. After our time at sea, the crew and I hoped to disembark in Italy. Instead we were quarantined due to the coronavirus.
Patrolling the waters off the coast of Libya, the crew of the rescue vessel Ocean Viking is constantly on the watch for boats in distress. Operated by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders, the ship's mission is saving migrants trying to reach Europe, whose boats are shipwrecked or in distress. I joined the crew in mid-February as the only journalist on board.
In just one day, the Ocean Viking received distress calls to come to the aid of two boats drifting some 130 kilometers off the coast of Libya. Despite choppy waves and frantic passengers, the rescue crew managed to calm everyone down and bring them on board the rescue vessel. During the entire mission, I witnessed the crew save 274 people.
Most of the people the Ocean Viking rescues are male. During our two-week mission, we saw many from Bangladesh, Morocco, but also from sub-Saharan countries. They were risking it all to get to Europe and were extremely relieved when we the crew took them on board and said they would not have to go back to Libya.
Once on board the Ocean Viking, the refugees have time to recover from their arduous journey and reflect on their lives ahead. The people who have left their homes and risked it all, will soon be confronted with a new life in Europe. I often asked myself, what they must be thinking, what have they left behind and how they imagine their future.
I've come to admire the dedication of the crew. With representatives from more than 14 yountries, various ethnicities and religions, what unites them is their steadfast dedication to saving lives. No matter what they did in previous lives, no one is too vain to scrub the deck or clean the toilets. Take Erik Koninsberger — just two years ago the 61-year-old worked as an actor on stage and in film.
"I can't imagine working anywhere else," says Illina Angelova, the Humanitarian Affairs Officer aboard the Ocean Viking. The young Bulgarian, who is part of the rescue team that saved 274 people from almost certain drowning, is responsible for taking care of the refugees once on board. Like the other crew members, she knows the danger involved in her work, but she is convinced of its importance.
When the migrants are brought on board the ship, they are given food, water, a bag of clothing and a blanket. While I was on board the ship, the migrants stayed in this container until they could safely disembark in Italy. This simple shelter provided them protection and a safe space to recover from their journey.
After the migrants were taken ashore in Italy, I was allowed to look around their temporary living quarters. Inside the shelter, the crew had set up a boxing ring for stress relief. On the walls, those who were rescued had scribbled drawings from their homeland and messages of thanks to the Ocean Viking.
Before the rescued migrants left Ocean Viking, they signed the walls in their living container. Here, one of them from Bangladesh recorded the date he left the ship for his new life in Europe: February 23, 2020. Others offered thanks or prayers for their rescue. Where they will go from the port in Sicily is not clear.
Italian authorities have quarantined the Ocean Viking in Sicily. They fear that the refugees could have brought the coronavirus on board. Every day Dr. Stephen K. Hall from Doctors Without Borders takes our temperature and checks our health. Originally from Sacramento, California, the doctor has been a volunteer since 2013 and was previously in South Sudan, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Syria.
These refugee children are from the Ivory Coast. It’s not clear where their parents are. After they were rescued by the Ocean Viking, they received toys to comfort them. But these kids - who had nothing else to hold and cuddle - were quickly disappointed. When they left the boat, Italian authorities took away the toys, out of fear they could be contaminated with the coronavirus.
After several days of weathering storms off the Italian coast, we were releaved when port authorities allowed us to dock in Pozzallo, Sicily. But because of the coronavirus, the crew and I were not able to actually disembark. We've been told we have to be quarantined for two weeks! In order to keep healthy and fit, crew members like this one from Romania, have built a make-shift gym.
While quarantined, I've had the chance to meet many of the crew. Tanguy is the undisputed hero here. No one has rescued more people than the 38-year-old Frenchman. According to some, the man at the helm of the lifeboat has saved more than 10,000 people from drowning. Even at the risk of his own life, Tanguy keeps his cool and gets the people to obey his orders and stay calm – and alive.
With her winning smile, Miriam Willis warms the hearts of all on board. The 35-year-old from Cambridge, UK, is responsible for the logistics on the Ocean Viking. She arranges everything for the refugees, from food and drink to clothes, a space for sleeping and washing up. Miriam has worked the past five years for Doctors Without Borders, in Myanmar, South Sudan and Central Africa.
Saving people does not come cheaply. Each day Doctors Without Borders and SOS Mediterranee spend at sea on the Ocean Viking costs 14,000 euros. A portion of the money goes towards paying rent on the ship. The organizations need new lifeboats and better equipment for the crew. But there’s not enough money for that. The NGOs rely entirely on donations.
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