As a fence to curb illegal immigration from Turkey to Greece goes up, some immigrants and asylum seekers are taking more dangerous and costly routes across the sea.
By Andy Dabilis and Menekse Tokyay for Southeast European Times in Athens and Istanbul -- 02/01/13
A Greek Coast Guard vessel patrols at the maritime border between Greece and Turkey near the small Greek Aegean Sea island of Agathonissi. [AFP]
As Greece completed a 10.5-kilometre long fence on its border with Turkey in a bid to keep out waves of illegal immigrants, a small overcrowded boat carrying Iraqis fleeing their country sank on December 15th off the island of Lesbos, within sight of Turkey, drowning 20.
The timing illustrated the plight of immigrants trying to get into the EU through its southernmost member state as Greece attempts to cope with flow of immigrants by land and sea.
Greek authorities hope that the 4-metre tall barbed-wire fence along the Evros River 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-kilometre border more inviting. 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.
Tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants used to cross into Greece from Turkey, but the wall and a trebling of border police on the Greek side 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 arrivals of illegal immigrants by land down by 95 percent, they have turned in increasing numbers to the sea and the Greek islands of the Aegean.
In the first seven months of 2012, police and coast guard officers on the islands said they detained 102 undocumented migrants while 1,536 were caught in the following three months.
Ioannis N. Grigoriadis, a political scientist from Ankara's Bilkent University, said the practical effect of the fence will be minimal in 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 on the implementation of the Readmission Agreement to be legitimate. Turkey has to do more to deter illegal migration waves towards Greece," Grigoriadis told SETimes.
In addition to hosting nearly 180,000 registered and unregistered Syrian refugees, Turkey acts as a destination and transit point for tens of thousands of immigrants hoping to reach Europe to escape destitution in Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
Unable to attain refugee or asylum status in Turkey due to the country's reservations on admitting non-European refugees, immigrants in Turkey who register must go through a long and uncertain process through the UN that often takes four to five years.
Instead, most make the crossing to Greece.
An estimated 55,000 illegal migrants sneaked into Evros prefecture from neighbouring Turkey last year and some Greek officials continue to chafe at what they view 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 have been 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 clothes," he said.
Many, he added, 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 organisations -- now including Amnesty International, which criticised the 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 programme 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. Although the party denies the claims, it admits it wants all illegal immigrants out of the country. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras also has said he wants Greece rid of foreigners who are 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 organisation 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."
Turkish authorities had no official comment on the fence's completion, but nearly a year ago Turkey 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 said.
Piril Ercoban, director of the Turkish pro-refugee Solidarity With Refugees Association, said a fence isn't a solution for people willing to escape from poverty and cruelty in their home countries.
"If obstacles are built, if fences are constructed, other ways can be found," Ercoban told SETimes. "As long as people feel the need to escape, they will find more expensive and risky solutions."
The fence, she said, will just push illegal immigration to other destinations, such as the Aegean and Bulgarian frontiers which aren't guarded as well.