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Greek-Turkish border: Recorder of the dead from Evros


Not only on the Mediterranean, but also on the Evros border river, people are dying trying to escape to the EU. Undocumented dead end up with coroner Pavlidis. He determines the identities – and restores some dignity to the deceased.

By Rüdiger Kronthaler, ARD Studio Rome

Pavlos Pavlidis enters the autopsy room in the University Hospital in Alexandroupoli. On behalf of the public prosecutor’s office, he has to autopsy a find. He is the forensic doctor on the Evros, the border river between Greece and Turkey, the EU’s external border.

Pavlidis examined 63 dead refugees in 2022, more than ever before in one year. “The first thing I do is take photos,” says Pavlidis. Even if the river is not particularly wide, the leading cause of death is drowning. “Many refugees often cannot swim well and the tugboats overload the boats, which capsize easily,” explains the doctor.

Pavlidis: on the Greek side 600 dead in 22 years

Many dead are also found on land in the forests near the border. Pavlidis found hypothermia and diseases caused by exhaustion to be the most common causes of death among them.

“In the last 22 years I’ve seen around 600 dead – only on the Greek side,” says the medical examiner. “Theoretically and hypothetically, we can say that there are just as many dead on the Turkish side. So we’re talking about 1,200 to 1,500 people.”

The Greeks call the border river Evros, in Turkish it is called Meriç.

“There’s a life in every bag”

Since most of the refugees found have no papers with them, Pavlidis also has to clarify their identity. To do this, he measures the size of the bones during the autopsy, takes a DNA sample and looks for special features.

He also collects the personal belongings of the dead. Under his desk are two large boxes with numbered bags containing watches, jewelry and prayer beads. They belong to dead people whose identity is still unclear, says Pavlidis. “There is a life in each of these bags. The question mark remains as far as their data is concerned. We have not managed to return these dead to their relatives.”

38 km long fence system

The border on the Evros is strictly shielded and has been fortified with a massive 38-kilometer fence since 2020. Nevertheless, according to the UNHCR, more than one in three refugees came to Greece overland last year, a total of 6,000 people.

Does the expansion of the border only shift the routes of the refugees instead of stopping them and thus makes the escape more dangerous? Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi says no and urges the fence to be expanded with European support. “We need the fence,” emphasizes the minister. “It is part of the strategy of protecting the external border.” At the same time, negotiations are to be held with Turkey on better retention of refugees.

“If they are children, then it is more depressing for me”

Forensic pathologist Pavlidis has meanwhile analyzed the find. “My first impression is it’s a young man, about 20 years old,” he says. “We don’t have a skull, just some bones. We don’t know the cause of death.”

Pavlidis – the recorder of the Evros dead – stores the dead man’s DNA in a database so that the police can compare it with open search queries. “There shouldn’t be any particularly hard cases for me,” explains the doctor. “But when it’s children, it’s more depressing for me.”

Nameless dead at EU external border

Rüdiger Kronthaler, ARD Rome, 02/08/2023 08:07 a.m