The thing with borders
I remember when all the news about the “migrant crisis” were pouring in from every media outlet imaginable. The “migrant crisis” - a catchall phrase that tries to describe and generalize the situations and lives of hundreds of thousands of people into one. Yet thanks to media outlets around the world, the label stuck with the people they informed. There was a story everyday being featured about how one dinghy sunk, or how one country shut its doors to the face of refugees.
For me, the stories of refugees crossing to Europe from Turkey affected me personally. As someone living in Turkey with many friends who were refugees that either had taken that route, or were thinking about making the trip themselves, these stories shook me in a way that no other news story had before. It was impossible to keep the stories out of my mind.
So as a traveller and a hitchhiker, I decided to go on another trip. But this trip would be a very different kind of trip compared to previous adventures. Instead of travelling without any purpose, allowing the place take its hold on me and guide me to beautiful corners of the world, I travelled for the first time with the purpose to somehow help people making the most difficult decisions - the decision to risk their lives on a boat for the promise of a better and more fulfilling life. At the time, I didn’t know how I could help, but I knew in the back of my mind that there was plenty of things that needed to be done. Whether it was in helping distribute donations or helping translate, I assumed I would be kept busy.
This purpose manifested itself one September day last year by taking me to Ido Meni, a village by the northern border of Greece and Macedonia that was the main border crossing point for refugees moving north. Since my favorite way to travel is to hitchhike, I ended up doing just that all the way to the border.
Usually when I hitchhike, I feel the power that I have complete control over exactly where I want to go and be. I get in a car when I want and hop out as I please. This doesn’t mean getting into the seat of every car that stops. Over time, I have learned how to spot people that I should avoid, especially while hitchhiking solo as a woman.
In this occasion with the help of hitchhiking, I showed up after three different car rides and a motorbike ride to the Turkish-Greek border, hopped on a bus with a kind family willing to take me across the border checkpoints, and got off the family bus after saying a profuse thank you. I was even given a helping hand by the Turkish border guards that found me the ride with the family. I continued on my way and was confident that I would get a ride to get to my destination. And I was right to be confident, since after crossing the border, a Turkish truck driver was nice enough to help me continue the journey.
I had an interesting conversation with the truck driver. He told me that he used to pick up hitchhikers all over Europe during his driving shifts, but that these days, he was being more careful. Apologetically, he explained that he no longer felt comfortable giving hitchhikers rides because of the consequences he could face if he was accused of carrying or “trafficking” a refugee within European borders. And his fear showed in our conversations, since he asked me more than once to confirm that I had proper identification with me.
The next day, I showed up by bus at Ido Meni. Nothing could have prepared me for the reality that I found there.
There were hundreds of people waiting along the train tracks. Confusion was the best word to describe the scene. It was impossible to discern between fact and gossip, as no one, not even people assigned to work there, could give a straight answer as to what was happening at any moment.
Buses would line up, filled to its brim carrying groups of fifty people at a time all throughout the day and night. Late morning, late at night, just before dawn - the time of day had no meaning. The border town never went to sleep, and nobody working there ever had enough time for resting, sleeping, or eating. There was always someone that needed food, someone that needed to be protected from the cold, someone that needed to see a doctor urgently for an injury or for medicine, someone that needed help translating, or someone scared and confused that just needed to be reassured and comforted.
Many people came with no bags or possessions because they had lost everything they owned at sea in a desperate move to keep their overcrowded boats above the water. As a result, there was an ever-present crowd pushing and fighting one another to the front of the donations trailer at the camp, trying to get whatever clothes, shoes, tools, or toiletries that they could scavenge.
Despite the stereotypes of suffering women and children often used by relief organizations to collect donations, it was the men that had the hardest experience. In creating the stereotypical image of women and children suffering at the border to appeal to the masses, many organizations created a problem for themselves. Many shivering and cold men would often show up at the front of the line to realize that there were only baby clothes or kid-sized shoes. The meager donations at the camp consisted mainly of unlimited supplies of baby clothing, but there were never enough coats or shoes for men, the group that made up the majority of people there. And since there were never enough shoes for the people walking barefooted or warm clothes for the people that lost them at sea, that some people would huddle together in order to stay warm and brace themselves mentally for their journey north into the freezing, chilling, and wet autumn and winter of Europe with nothing on but a T-shirt or sandals to trudge through the cold and freezing mud on the ground.
The men, women, and children clustering together might wait for thirty minutes at the Ido Meni transit point after arriving before they were escorted across the border to Macedonia. But it was never consistent. Sometimes they might wait a couple hours, maybe even a full day. These days, the people at the border, some whom I knew from living in Istanbul, have been waiting at the border for four to five months.
For the refugees, reaching the border did not equate to safety, as there were always threats from the same people they were travelling with. One morning, I met Maha, an Iranian woman, after her and other refugees arrived on a full bus from Athens. Maha was in a particularly anxious state, and it wasn’t because of the potential border closures or freezing nights she would have to endure in the dark and cold on her own. She feared that her Iranian identity would be revealed to the other Afghan men traveling in her assigned group, and that because there was tension between Afghans and Iranians, she would be targeted and taken advantage of by them. On the second morning, I woke up to the sounds of raging fighting. At first, I thought it was a fight between the border security and the refugees, but it was actually a full-out brawl between the Syrian and Afghan men at the camp at the time.
All emotions, both the good and the bad, were intense and extreme during my few days there. Happiness came hand-in-hand with uncertainty and fear. The border was both the source of the best and worst news. If the border was open for safe passage, reaching the border was a reassuring step forward in the journey north. But if it was shut, anger and helplessness would permeate throughout the entire camp like an infectious disease. And there was no way to control or manage those extreme emotions at Ido Meni, as what one would feel at the border was completely dependent on the actions and policies of the countries that lay beyond the Greek border.
As a traveller, I’ve always had the feeling that reaching a border was a moment of victory. Whenever I reach a border crossing, I can’t help but feel a sense of accomplishment that I made it across on my own terms. After leaving the passport control in the new country, I always indulge myself for a moment and look at the fresh entry stamp in my passport, as though that new entry stamp is a trophy. Upon looking at the stamp, I usually immediately find myself in good spirits and filled with excitement for what lies ahead in the new land.
But in Ido Meni, the border symbolized none of that. The border consistently stressed out the refugees mentally, emotionally, and physically. The border was the goal that represented safety which pushed hundreds of thousands of people to risk their lives to reach it. Whenever the border was closed, it represented the fear that governments in Europe shared of men, women, and children coming from harsh circumstances, and the injustice they can inflict upon the people who have lost the most in life. For a traveler like me, the injustice of closed borders took on a physical form that shocked me to my core.
The thing about borders is that somewhere along the line of history, borders have also come to represent the inequalities that exist in the freedom to travel. Having a passport does not guarantee that one can travel to wherever they wish. With some exceptions, most people are born into a country, which determines how “strong” of a passport one can possess. Based on the front label of a small booklet, some people can travel to more places than others. As an American and Japanese citizen, the whole world is in my hands. I was even able to travel freely on my own terms, and hitchhike all the way from Istanbul to the Greek border, and find a ride with a truck driver to the Greek-Macedonian border.
But while I was able to hitchhike and go to Greece without even buying a ticket, most of the refugees there had risked their lives and their finances to take a dinghy from Turkey to Greece. While I was able to make the trip on my own in relative safety, the refugees had to endure being herded around like animal from one point to another without any freedom of movement.
The refugees that I met at Ido Meni came from all sorts of countries, but they were overwhelmingly Syrian, Afghan, Iraqi, Eritrean, Somalian, Iranian, Pakistani, to name a few. When looking at travel freedom, these are all the same countries that have the least freedom to travel to different countries in the world without a visa. According to the Henley’s and Partners Visa Restrictions Index 2016, the people with the least freedom to travel in the world are Afghans. Followed by Afghans are Pakistanis, Iraqis, Somalis, Syrians, and all the other citizens of the countries I listed above. On the other hand, the countries with the highest freedom to travel in the top three rankings were all European countries. It raises a question. Had the refugee “crisis” happened to another country with a “stronger” passport, would they have had to risk their lives riding a dinghy boat and be herded around by local authorities like animals?
Therefore, in Ido Meni, the border was and still acts as a painful reminder of how the freedom to travel is something that is not universally shared among all people. For refugees, it is a reminder that they were born into countries with passports that only allowed them access to a handful of countries, and barred them from entering most. It is a reminder for all that in this modern day and age, some people are lucky not because of anything that they did or accomplished, but because they were born into a country that came with a better and stronger passport.
As travellers, it becomes even more crucial to consider and reflect what it means to be able to travel or move from one country to another in this day and age. Is this freedom of travel something universally accessible among all people? Who or what is it that makes travel an activity accessible for a privileged few? While it is becoming easier for some to travel to far-flung destinations on the other side of the world, it is becoming harder for others. How is it that we came to the point that people from some countries can, and are encouraged to take up on the leisure activity we call “travel”, while others are barred from doing so?In light of all this, as travellers, maybe it is good to take the time to reflect on what it means to be a traveller out of respect for those who don’t have that same freedom to travel even when they are forced to do so.
After those few intense days, I was back at the border of Greece and Turkey after another round of hitchhiking. For the first time, I didn’t feel a sense of accomplishment from reaching the border. Instead, I didn’t know how to feel.
Mia Tong is a half-American, half Japanese aspiring writer. After graduating from university in Anthropology, she moved to Istanbul, Turkey, so that she could travel and learn more about the world around her. She will begin studying for the MSc in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies this coming autumn in the UK.