Critics say the fence will at best divert migrant patterns and push the burden onto Turkey.
By HK Tzanis and Menekse Tokyay for Southeast European Times in Athens and Istanbul -- 14/02/12
A fence along the Greek-Turkish border near Orestiada is to deter illegal immigration into Greece. [Reuters]
With an estimated 55,000 illegal migrants sneaking into Evros prefecture from neighbouring Turkey last year, intense domestic political pressure on the Greek government to stem the tide of illegal immigration has manifested into a 4m-tall security fence along the Evros River.
Construction of the 12.5km fence, complete with razor wire, and a related command centre, began in early February with a price tag of more than 5m euros and a projected completion date of late 2012.
"Good fences make good neighbours," the poet Robert Frost once wrote, yet symbolism and practicality appear blurred in the case of the Evros fence, with opinions on both sides of the flood-prone river mixed.
"This is not a measure taken against Turkey or Greece," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in January 2011 when asked about the project with the then Greek prime minister at his side.
"It's wrong to see this as a wall; it's just a barrier. We fully trust each other," he added, playing down the importance of the fence.
However, Ioannis Grigoriadis, a Greek scholar at Bilkent University in Ankara, said he believes the practical effects of the fence on restricting illegal immigration will be minimal, as the flow will not cease but simply be diverted to other crossings along the more than 200km riparian border shared by Greece and Turkey.
"At the same time, this project has a negative symbolic connotation. The project of European integration, which has also inspired Greek-Turkish rapprochement, is about building bridges and demolishing fences, not building new ones where they did not exist," he added.
That sentiment, however, would have been distinctly out-of-place about 900km away on February 6th in increasingly crime-plagued central Athens.
During a politically-charged forum on the problem of illegal migration, Greek MEP Giorgos Papanikolaou said Athens and the EU must pressure Ankara to fully meet its bilateral and multilateral commitments, especially a landmark 2001 migrant readmission protocol signed by the two countries.
Speakers at the forum underlined that studies point to roughly half a million non-legal migrants now estimated to be in Greece, with an average of 300 people -- mostly from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia -- trying to cross the Evros border every day. Most hope to reach a final destination in Western Europe, but the first major hurdle lies at the Evros/Meriç.
Meriç district Governor Halid Yildiz told SETimes that Greece and the EU should opt for another way of tackling the problem by taking into account the critical status of Turkey as a transit country for illegal migrants.
"This situation will serve no other purpose than to transfer the load from Greece's back onto Turkey's," he said.
Across the river, veteran Evros-area journalist Dimitris Petrovic told SETimes said the fence's effectiveness remains to be seen.
"At the moment, they're [illegal migrants] coming in from all sides; we need more police personnel along the border, and above all, co-operation by the Turkish side," he said.
"We're not Luxembourg here; you see who we have next to us. We are seeing migrant smugglers now using firearms, so the dangers are now very high," he adds.
Asked why the specific land corridor is such a preferred "passage" for migrant smugglers, Petrovic pointed to the fact that no hazardous river crossing is involved.
"Now, there's a belief that a large portion [of the migrant flow] will be deflected to the central and southern Evros sectors. The only long-term solution is for increased EU pressure on our neighbour. Unfortunately, there's a 'big business' taking place on the other side, which some are calling an 'unofficial travel agency'," he said.
Bayram Colakoglu, head of Balkan-origin Turkish Culture and Co-operation Association, also told SETimes that the fence is likely to produce further tragedies in the future, obliging would-be migrants to choose alternate and more dangerous routes.
He spoke days after the body of an African woman was discovered by Greek police on the banks of the river, near the Tyheros community. She is presumed to have drowned after a boat ferrying her across the river capsized, an incident that also claimed the life of a 9-year-old girl and her grandfather, both swept away in the swollen and frigid waters.
"It's of the utmost importance to erase the primary reasons of human trafficking and to fight against criminal organisations, as people who want to immigrate give huge amounts of money to these organisations," Colakoglu said.