Greece is Strengthening its Borders against Illegal Migration
In 2023, Greece plans to triple the length of the steel border wall. The 5 meter high solid structure, made of sturdy steel columns, has footings up to 10 meters deep and is topped with razor wire and a metal barrier.
Accompanied by a cloud of mosquitoes, police captain Konstantinos Tsolakidis and three other border guards set off on a boat patrol along the Evros River, which is a natural border between Greece and Turkey.
Their route runs through a maze of tall reeds, past flocks of flamingos and boat tourists visiting a nature reserve where the river flows into the Mediterranean Sea.
The Evros River, called Meric in Turkey and Maritsa in Bulgaria, runs through one of the most remote parts of Europe. It is also becoming one of the most militarized as Greece and the wider European Union work on ways to prevent migrants from entering the country from Turkey.
In army-held areas on the Greek side of the border, the European Union is funding and testing an advanced surveillance network that uses machine-monitoring software and an array of fixed and mobile cameras and sensors to detect migrants trying to cross the border.
Critics of the measures say Greece is tightening its authoritarian policies on migrants and asylum seekers, operating in the shadows in border areas that are under military control and where outside civilian observers are denied access. Border police and residents say they're just happy the wall is working.
"It's impossible to break through," said Tsolakidis, who leads patrols along the southern stretch of the border. "It was built in the areas along the Evros where the crossings are most frequent. And the deterrence capacity is 100%."
According to the Greek authorities, in conditions of sharply increased migration pressure after the pandemic, by the end of November this year, more than 250,000 migrants were prevented from crossing the land border between Greece and Turkey. During the same period, more than 5,000 people were detained after they managed to cross the river.
Border officials, who use sniffer dogs, loudspeakers and powerful searchlights on patrol, say multiple incidents of up to a thousand migrants are not uncommon in a single day during the summer and early fall, when water levels on the Evros reach annual lows.
Small islands, some of which are in the middle of the river where the border technically is, reappear during the season, making it easier to cross.
Completed in 2021, the wall currently stretches 37 kilometers in three separate sections, and authorities plan to add another 100 kilometers to cover most of the 192-kilometer land border.
When construction of the border wall began a decade ago, it was met with heated political debate and public demonstrations backed by left-wing parties and Greek human rights groups. This time the reaction is weaker.
Without much debate, parliament recently passed an amendment sanctioning the extension, with rules on commercial tenders and cost control safeguards phasing out until June 30, 2023.
An opinion poll published by the private Antena television showed that almost two-thirds of Greek voters support stricter migration control measures, with only 8.1% saying that police protection should be eased. Support for the tougher measures was reported along party lines and included more than 60% of voters in the left-wing main opposition party - which officially opposes extending the wall.
The October survey was conducted by the sociological company Marc for the private Greek channel.
Polls show residents of other EU border states, including Poland and the Baltic states, have also become more concerned about security as threats such as the war in Ukraine move closer to the bloc's outer borders.
And the escalating dispute between Greece and Turkey over maritime borders and drilling rights has overshadowed disputes over migration.
Greece filed a series of international complaints after border police found 92 shirtless male migrants in October and accused Turkish authorities of deliberately pushing them across the border.
Turkey has repeatedly accused Greece of carrying out secret deportations known as pushing out potential asylum seekers and putting their lives at risk.
Athens is also under pressure from the largest human rights organizations, the UN refugee agencies and the European Union, and even a government advisory group, according to which hundreds of credible testimonies have been collected, which indicate that violent incidents, including forced pushes, often take place on the Greek-Turkish border and this has been going on for 20 years.
UN agencies and the EU have been pushing for the creation of an independent body to monitor borders, a demand that Athens has so far failed to comply with.
Disputes with countries bordering the EU, and the often legitimate security concerns they raise, reduce attention to migrants in need of international protection and tempt European governments to adopt tough policies, says Begum Basdas of the Center for Fundamental Rights which is party of the Hertie school in Berlin.
"The militarization of migration prevents us from seeing the issue as a human rights issue ... and what really worries me is the creeping of authoritarianism through migration management in the European Union," says Basdas.
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