Until a few months ago, Greece’s 200km border with Turkey represented the largest crack in the walls of “Fortress Europe”; it was the point where the majority of undocumented migrants entered the European Union (EU).
Hundreds assembled every night on the banks of the River Evros, which separates the two countries, to be crammed onto small inflatable boats by smugglers and pushed out onto the river. Reaching the other side meant reaching Europe, and between early 2010 and August 2012, at least 87,000 successfully did so, according to Brigadier Georgios Salamagas, chief of the police directorate of Orestiada, in Greece’s Evros region.
“Since 2010, our area has had a problem with clandestine migration,” he told IRIN. “The numbers were enormous... We lived here with a continuous humanitarian crisis.”
Plugging the hole
After making it across the river, the migrants usually presented themselves at the nearest police station. After a cursory registration process, most were issued a document giving them 30 days to leave the country, and then were sent on their way.
Many eventually stowed away on boats bound for Italy or paid smugglers to take them to other destinations in Europe. Those with less luck or fewer resources ended up on the streets of Athens or other Greek cities, where the increasingly popular extreme right-wing group Golden Dawn has successfully scapegoated them for a multitude of ills, from Greece’s financial crisis to its rising levels of crime.
In early August, under mounting pressure from both the Greek public and the EU, the government launched an operation to plug the holes in the country’s border with Turkey: An additional 2,000 police were dispatched to patrol the area; a 12km stretch of fence is nearing completion along one of the most popular crossing points; and any undocumented migrant found near the border faces arrest and detention.
“Each and every one who enters Greek territory is being apprehended,” said Salamagas. “If they ask for asylum, they remain in detention so we can consider their application. For those who are to be deported, they remain [in detention] for up to six months, and this can be extended for another six months with consent from the district attorney.”
The effect of these measures has been dramatic. While 6,000 migrants were detected crossing the border in July, a mere 70 attempted to cross in September.
Greek authorities have pronounced the operation a success, but there are questions about whether such measures are either humane or effective in deterring migrants determined to reach Europe.
"Efforts to seal the borders at Evros are worrying because it means that genuine refugees also can't cross," commented Ketty Kahayioylou , the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) spokesperson in Greece. "Walls and other deterrents don't stop people from coming. They just find other routes - more dangerous routes."
There is already evidence that migrants and their smugglers have simply adapted, reverting to the sea route between the Turkish coast and Greece’s eastern Aegean islands favoured before 2010. Salamagas admits that it is quite probable migrants will switch back to the land border as soon as the operation in Evros ends, as they did when a previous three-month joint operation between Greek police and European border agency Frontex ended in February 2011. The current operation has just been extended for a further two months but is unlikely to continue indefinitely.
The prospect of subjecting migrants to longer stays in detention facilities, where conditions have been repeatedly criticized by human rights organizations, is also concerning. A June 2011 report by international medical humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) found that inhumane conditions in detention facilities in the Evros Region were causing “major health problems”. Additionally, an EU Court of Justice ruling last year found that other EU countries should not return asylum seekers to Greece - as required under the Dublin Regulation - because of the poor detention conditions there.
Salamagas listed repairs that had been made to several of the area’s detention facilities in the past year, including the installation of new toilets and heating systems. “We don’t have the cooperation of the detained migrants,” he complained. “In their attempts to get freedom, they cause many damages.”
Margaritis Petritzikas, a lawyer with the Greek Council for Refugees who regularly visits detention centres in Evros, agrees that there has been some improvement, but says problems persist. “The quality and quantity of food is not enough,” he said, adding that some of the facilities lacked natural light or outside areas for detainees to exercise.
A European problem
The EU has lambasted Greece’s migrant detention facilities, the porousness of its borders and its poor handling of asylum seekers. But many Greeks are questioning why their country, already saddled with a crippling debt crisis, should be blamed for failing to better manage a disproportionate share of Europe’s irregular migration burden.
“It’s a big hypocrisy from Europe,” said Nikitas Kanakis, director of the NGO Médecins du Monde (MDM) in Greece. “They keep accusing us for what we’re doing here, but at the same time, they don’t want to accept them [in their countries].”
Ioanna Kotsioni, an Athens-based migration expert with MSF, agreed that there was a lack of real problem-sharing.
The EU is paying for 75 percent of the cost of the current crackdown on undocumented migrants in Evros and elsewhere. Through Frontex, member states have also loaned the country 200 immigration officers as well as surveillance equipment to assist with border control. In addition, the EU is covering some of the costs of deporting migrants through the European Return Fund.
Kotsioni described all of these measures as part of a "securitization of migration" trend that has been intensifying in the last decade and has given rise to the appellation “Fortress Europe”.
Groups like UNHCR, MSF and MDM would prefer to see the EU help Greece create open, humane reception centres for migrants, establish a more efficient asylum system, pass legislation to reform the Dublin Regulation and make special provisions for countries like Greece that are dealing with large influxes of migrants.
"We need a European perspective on this," said Kanakis of MDM.
For more stories on migration, please visit our In-Depth Crossing into the Unknown