ARUN RATH, HOST:
Refugees from Iraq and Syria are trying to escape the conflicts in their countries by setting off for Europe. We've heard of the EU's struggle to deal with people crossing the Mediterranean Sea in rickety boats, but the migration crisis is growing on another front - those coming to Europe by foot. That journey takes them to Turkey's border with Bulgaria. NPR's Ari Shapiro drove for hours through Bulgaria to reach the easternmost edge of the European Union.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: We've just passed a sign that says, Turkey - three kilometers. And now we've turned off the road, and we're rolling along a rutted dirt track to get to the actual spot where Bulgaria meets Turkey. Down in the valley below, on one side, there's a big Turkish flag. And then, just a few feet away, there's a huge Bulgarian flag, and next to it, a European Union flag, which, in some ways, is even more important. If you're trying to escape a war in the Middle East on foot and you want to enter the European Union, this is where you have to come.
PLAMEN DINEV: (Through interpreter) You can see it's 90 degrees out here, and everybody's on patrol.
SHAPIRO: Plamen Dinev is the chief of surveillance for Bulgaria's Border Guard. He's worked here for 30 years. Most years, about a thousand people would successfully cross the border. This year, 7,000 have crossed already. Last weekend alone, 650 people tried to cross, most of them unsuccessfully.
DINEV: (Through interpreter) They keep trying two, three, five times. If they don't get through here, they go down the road. You can never stop them.
SHAPIRO: So you're fighting the wind?
DINEV: (Through interpreter) I'm Don Quixote tilting at windmills. This is the problem.
SHAPIRO: The European Union has provided money for surveillance cameras here. There's a border fence, three helicopters and more. But a smuggler gets paid about $1,500 for two hours work taking a group into Europe, so there's a huge incentive to break through. To get a sense of what happens here when guards meet migrants, I spoke with a small-town police officer who was part of a human wall blocking entry at the border. His commander told him everybody trying to cross was Taliban. He could see right away that wasn't true.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through interpreter) They look like nomads. They had been on the road a long time. I could see their clothes were torn and dirty.
SHAPIRO: We're not using his name because he could get fired for talking to us. He says he had no training or preparation as a border guard.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through interpreter) We were given orders not to fire our weapon at any cost, and we were also given orders not to let anybody in at any cost.
SHAPIRO: How do you do both of those things at the same time?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through interpreter) I have no idea.
SHAPIRO: He says the migrants who showed up during the day looked old, tired, sick, hungry. The ones who showed up at night were stronger and healthier. He would shout at them in Bulgarian and English.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Stop. Don't cross the border. Turn around. Go back to Turkey.
SHAPIRO: Many of them did not understand the language. Sometimes, they would run at the guards, and sometimes the guards used their batons.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through interpreter) They beat people once or twice a day.
SHAPIRO: He admits his colleagues hit people, but he says he never had to. Groups from the UN to Human Rights Watch documented those abuses and worse a year ago. Since then, things seem to have improved. At a police center near the border, an official takes us inside a building. In a room with bare, white walls, three families sit in a large metal cage - about a dozen people. The children look bored. A man sleeps on a wooden table. They were all picked up at the border in the last 24 hours. We walked down the hall to another room.
We're in a room now with a woman with a headscarf is getting fingerprinted, and she's got grass on her shirt. Her shoes are dirty. It looks like she's been walking for a long time.
Now, her new life in Europe is about to begin. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, on Bulgaria's border with Turkey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.