As Greece completed a 10.5-kilometer (6.5 miles) long fence on its border with Turkey along the Evros River in a bid to keep out seemingly endless waves of illegal immigrants, a small boat carrying an overload of Iraqis fleeing their country sank on Dec. 15 off the island of Lesbos – almost within sight of Turkey – drowning 20.
The timing illustrated the plight of immigrants trying to get into the European Union through its southernmost country and Greece trying to cope with boatloads from Africa and Turkey, and by land through its borders. Greek authorities hope the 4-meter tall, barbed-wire fence that cost more than 3 million euros will keep them out.
Nearly 100,000 immigrants were arrested while trying to cross from Turkey in 2011, and Greece fears the strife in Syria will make the 201-kilometer (125-mile) long border inviting for more. The wall is aimed at blocking a small stretch of dry land between the countries, but immigrants try to swim the Evros River, some drowning, others victim to hypothermia.
Scores of thousands of undocumented immigrants used to cross into Greece from Turkey, but the wall has cut the numbers from 300 a day to 10-15 per month, according to Medecins Sans Frontieres. While the fence, even during its construction, cut down arrivals of illegal immigrants by 95 percent by land, they turned in increasing numbers to the sea and the Greek islands of the Aegean. In the first seven months of the year, police and coast guard officers on islands said they detained 102 undocumented migrants while 1,536 were caught in the next three months.
Ioannis N. Grigoriadis, a political scientist from Ankara Bilkent University, said the practical effect of the fence will be minimal on limiting illegal immigration because refugees and asylum seekers will just use other crossing points.
“On the other hand, I consider Greek concerns about Turkey’s refusal to collaborate in the implementation of the Readmission Agreement to be legitimate. Turkey has to do more to deter illegal migration waves towards Greece,” Grigoriadis told Southeast European Times. Turkish officials estimated that 55,000 illegal migrants sneaked into Evros prefecture from neighboring Turkey last year and some Greek officials have continued to chafe at what they saw as Turkey’s unwillingness to do more to stop them.
Stratos Georgoulas, a sociology professor at the University of the Aegean on Lesbos, told SETimes the fence won’t deter immigrants from getting into Greece. “Every day for the last six months more than 20 people were crossing the sea borders. If they don’t drown, they stay in places here without any help from the Greek government. Many of us try to give them and clothes,” he said.
Many, he said, are asylum seekers coming to a country where as few as one in 10,000 applicants are granted that status and as a number of organizations, now including Amnesty International, in a report criticizing an ongoing sweep of immigrants and the conditions in which many are held, have blasted Greece’s immigrant policy.
“Greece’s failure to respect the rights of migrants and asylum-seekers is taking on the proportions of a humanitarian crisis,” John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia Program Director at Amnesty International said. “Against a backdrop of sustained migratory pressure, profound economic crisis and rising xenophobic sentiment, Greece is proving itself incapable of providing even the most basic requirements of safety and shelter to the thousands of asylum seekers and migrants arriving each year,” he added.
Exacerbating Greece’s problem is the rise of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party that has been blamed for attacks on immigrants, which it denies, although admitting it wants all illegal immigrants out of the country. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras also has said he wants Greece rid of foreigners in the country unlawfully.
Amnesty, however, said other European countries share “responsibility for processing asylum applications and supporting asylum seekers more equally among member states.” The organization said that in some cases, Greek authorities were also pushing back migrants crossing from Turkey, including by puncturing a rubber dinghy they were sailing in.
Ketty Kehayioylou, the information officer for UNHCR’s Athens office, said it’s a dilemma for Greece. “Countries have a right to protect their borders, but it (the fence) obliges people to go to more dangerous routes,” she told SETimes. “Greece is bearing a burden,” she acknowledged, but she added that “Migration has been left unregulated for a long time and that’s created a lot of repercussions. Asylum seekers, especially children, should not be detained,” she added.
Turkish authorities had no official comment on the fence’s completion but nearly a year ago, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan downplayed the wall’s political significance. “It’s wrong to see this as a wall; it’s just a barrier. We fully trust each other,” he told SETimes then.
Piril Ercoban, director of the Turkish pro-refugee organization Solidarity With the Refugees Association, said a fence isn’t a solution for people willing to escape from poverty and cruelty in their home countries.
As long as obstacles are built before those people, as long as such fences are constructed, they can easily find another, maybe more risky and expensive, way of reaching their target destination,” Ercoban told SETimes. “Because they need this,” she added. The fence, she said, will just push illegal immigration to other destinations, such as the Aegean sea and Bulgarian frontiers which aren’t guarded as well.
Georgoulas said there a political dimensions. “The problem is not only how the EU deals with migration,” he said. “The real problem is that EU bombs their countries, forces them to leave, and then names them ‘illegal’ without addressing the problem of Greeks and Turks who get paid to put them in small old plastic or wooden boats offering false dreams.”
(Reprinted by permission of Southeast European Times, www.setimes.com. Menekse Tokyay in Istanbul was the co-writer of this story)
(Kathimerini, 17/12/12; Al Jazeera, 15/12/12; ANSA, 03/12/12)