The desperate road to Greece is a cemetery for migrants

A migrant waits to sneak through the fence in the northern town of Fnideq as he attempts to cross the border from Morocco into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta (EPA)

This article first appeared on our partner site, Independent Arabia

“He wanted to emigrate to help us financially. He knocked on every door in Morocco, but still couldn’t find a job,” says the mother of a young man (HS) who lost his life trying to cross the border into Bosnia. “He found it hard to accept me supporting the family while he was unemployed, so he sacrificed his life for us.

“I don’t even know the circumstances under which he died. We couldn’t even find his body. His Algerian partner phoned me to inform me of his death ”.

HS was 28 and had traveled to Turkey, hoping to cross the border from there to a European country. Like other young people, he believed the road was safe and that he could fulfill his dream of crossing the border, finding work and helping his family.

In closed Facebook groups, young Moroccans hoping to emigrate illegally obtain the phone numbers of smugglers who help them cross the border. Once young people land in a European country, they post videos on YouTube explaining how they made the journey and provide the contact details of the smuggler who helped them. Since 2015, more than a million people have made the journey from Turkey to Athens, with smugglers pocketing $10 billion, according to Turkish media.

Facebook migration groups

Although Morocco is only a few kilometers from Spain, tight border security has led young Moroccans to look for alternative routes. Instead, they head for Turkey with the aim of entering Europe via the Balkans.

Recently, a young man posted a video in a Facebook group for young people wishing to move abroad of the death of a Moroccan migrant he knew, saying he was looking for the man’s family’s phone number to contact them. Families of missing migrants also resort to these Facebook pages and groups in search of their missing children.

Turkey allows Moroccan citizens to stay up to 90 days without a visa. This has given a boost to the people-smuggling business, with most smugglers exploiting the aspirations of young people to reach Europe and charging around €5,000 to cross from Turkey to Greece.

In closed Facebook groups, migrants educate each other on how to walk the Balkan road, hide under trucks, and cross from Greece to Macedonia and then through Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia to reach Slovenia.

Slovenian police data show that more than 952 Moroccans and 1,590 Algerians arrived illegally in Slovenia in the first nine months of 2019. Citizens of Maghreb (north-west African) countries top the list of asylum seekers, according to data.

Rashid, a 26-year-old Moroccan, is still trapped in Slovenia. He’s planning to go through the woods and get to safety. Talking with Independent Arabia on the phone about her experience, she says: “Death finds its way to you. If you survive starvation in the woods, you may drown while crossing the river. You could be robbed or raped at the hands of ruthless border guards.”

Egyptian volunteer buries Muslim migrants

“Some migrants die while crossing the Evros River to Greece,” adds Rashid. On the Greek island of Lesbos, there is a cemetery for Muslim migrants who died en route after smugglers tricked them into thinking they would reach European shores safely.

In that cemetery, Mustafa Dawa, a 32-year-old Egyptian man, volunteers to bury the dead. He moved to Greece to study Greek literature and works in translation. He volunteers to bury Muslims in a makeshift cemetery in an olive grove.

Mustafa washes the deceased and wraps them according to Islamic rites. He prays for them before putting them to rest and hopes their families will be able to find their graves.

In October 2015 Mustafa was working as an interpreter for migrants inside the camps on Lesbos. After the sinking of three migrant boats, the bodies of the Muslim migrants were buried in a small section of the St. Panteleimon Church cemetery. As the death toll from boats from Turkey to Greece increased, the cemetery was soon full.

He then decided to lobby the municipality to provide a burial site for unidentified Muslim migrants, on the condition that he would bury them himself. On their gravestones, he writes their ages and genders. Nobody knows who these people are.

The families of those who have disappeared turn to him, as he is the only person who has information about those buried there.

The number of anonymous bodies buried in this makeshift cemetery is increasing, and the responsibilities on Mustafa’s shoulders are increasing. Despite this, Nawfal, a 35-year-old Moroccan citizen, still wants to travel to Turkey and make this perilous journey to Greece. The young man is adamant about travel, even though he knows that many have lost their lives in this way. “I am very aware that there is a great possibility that I could die. But there is also a small chance that I will be able to migrate to Europe and find work there.”

“I fear death but I have no other resource”

“In this neighborhood,” adds Nawfal, “the only thing we talk about is how to cross Europe. We collect information on social media to avoid being scammed. Despite all the challenges, we try to get there.”

When asked about the reasons for emigrating, Nawfal says: “After I graduated from university, I couldn’t find a job. My only hope was to find a job in the public sector, but Morocco has enacted a new law banning men over the age of 30 from teaching. That’s why it would be better for me to risk my life.”

Asked if he was worried about dying during the crossing, Nawfal explains: “Yes, I’m afraid of dying but I have no other solution. Being unemployed, homeless and a burden to the family is also a kind of death. It is an indescribable and bitter death.”

Social media has helped to increase the number of young North Africans wishing to enter Europe via the Balkans. Many YouTube pages and channels convince young people that illegal immigration to Europe is the solution they are looking for.

Reviewed by Tooba Ali and Celine Assaf

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