Greece is now on the frontline of Fortress Europe, as non-EU refugees pour in across the Turkish border
The border between Greece and Turkey amounts, on land at least, to two parallel roads and a ditch. On both sides of this weed-infested chasm, conscripts face each other down the barrel of a gun, some perched on observation towers, others striding, rifles at the ready, past mud-churned fields along the road.
Depending on the prevailing mood between Athens and Ankara, the soldiers may acknowledge each other and even nod. Pleasantries have been in short supply of late. Thanks to a tidal wave of men, women and children who have worked out that this is the easiest backdoor entrance into the European Union, the mood is brittle and tense.
The edginess doesn’t seem to bother Police Sergeant Frank Reh. Fresh from serving on an anti-riot unit in Berlin, this burly German member of Frontex, the EU’s border control agency, relishes his new beat defending Fortress Europe.
“Ah,” he says, his broad face gleaming in the cold, crows swooping over the fields around him. “I think it is important to support the Greeks. This is Europe’s border, after all.”
Woolly hat pulled low over his forehead, a pistol in his holster and all manner of technological back-up, Reh is part of a 175-strong rapid border intervention team deployed to the area by the EU last November. But for the increasingly concerned Greek government, such reinforcements are deemed insufficient. The socialist government has recently announced that it plans to build a razor-wire fence along the border. It will, say officials, be equipped with sonar systems and thermal sensors and be modelled along the lines of similar “walls” in Spain, Lithuania and France.
“If we could have it up tomorrow, we would,” said Christos Papoutsis, the country’s minister for citizen protection. “Greece is not a paradiseâ€¦ it is in the midst of economic crisis, wages are going down, unemployment is surging and there is not enough work for our own people or the migrants who are already here. Our hope is that this fence will send a message.”
Athens has reached the end of its tether as the volume of immigrants streaming across the border continues to grow. With Greece undergoing its worst recession since the second world war, social tensions, xenophobia and political extremism are on the rise, with a worrying spate of attacks on migrant communities in the capital.
Bracing for another possible influx following the turmoil in Egypt, patrols were stepped up last week. In 2009 some 3,600 migrants managed to slip across the frontier not far from this market town; in 2010 that number shot up to 36,000, helping explain why Greece has become the favoured port of entry for 90% of illegals pouring into the EU.
“They come at all hours of the night and day,” said Orestiada’s police chief, Giorgos Salamangas, in his icon-bedecked office. “And they’re coming not just from the Middle East and Asia but all of Africa, places I have never heard of before. The other day we even had a batch in from the Dominican Republic. I had to look up where that was.”
Only two years ago, when the wider Evros region was better known for its wetlands than refugees, migrants were besieging the Greek isles along the Turkish coast. Before that, they had focused on the western Mediterranean, beginning with Spain, France and then Italy.
But as patrols were increased and Rome moved to stem the wave by signing a repatriation pact with Libya, traffickers changed tack. Targeting Europe’s eastern edge, they went for Greece’s newly de-mined, north-eastern flank.
Salamangas blames the porous border Greece shares with Turkey. Most of the frontier is delineated by the treacherously fast-flowing Evros river. Last year 22 people drowned trying to cross it, with the police chief often plucking them from its depths.
But the strip of land that separates the two neighbours is much easier to cross. When its sunflowers and corn shoots are in full bloom, migrants often play a cat-and-mouse game with patrol units before making a dash across the buffer zone for the border.
“This little bit of land is the source of the problem,” Salamangas laments. “There is no natural or technical obstacle to prevent them, and that’s what they exploit. Until very recently we’ve had no co-operation from Turkey,” he continues. “A lot of these people fly into Constantinople [Istanbul] on cheap flights, and then with the help of smugglers make the short journey to Adrianopolis [Edirne]. Just like that, so easy. Some days we’ve had 300 pour in. It’s an uncontrollable wave, and the only way to stop it is to erect a fence.
“Traffickers deprive migrants of every form of identification, which makes it much easier for Turkey to refuse them and almost impossible to prove where they are from,” Salamangas said.
Numbers have dropped since the arrival of Frontex. But the signs of migrants are everywhere: in the old clothes scattered across the hillsides, shoes found at the bottom of ravines, blankets thrown onto rubbish heaps.
The influx has shattered the rhythm of life in one of Greece’s most isolated regions. Farmers in the main, the locals speak of the fear they have felt at suddenly encountering thousands of bedraggled men, women and children from the likes of Afghanistan and Iraq, Algeria and Morocco, India, Palestine, Congo and Somalia.
“It’s been an unbelievable caravan of humanity. I must have seen at least 10,000 of them pass,” said Giorgos Liakides, who runs a little mini-market in Nea Vissa, the first village after the border. “You wake up and find them on your doorstep, and at night when you go to water the fields you find them hiding in the bushes. We understand their plight, we are human as well. But we’re afraid. None of us ever used to lock our doors before; now we worry all the time.”
Mostly economic migrants, those who do get in readily hand themselves over to Greek police, eager to elicit the documents that will allow them to stay for up to 30 days in the EU member state.
In theory, they are meant to be deported after that, but in practice many just blend into the back streets of Athens before attempting to sneak into another European country by train, boat or bus.
In Orestiada, immigrants are screened in a detention centre outside the town. From inside the dour building, detainees can often be heard screaming “freedom, freedom”.
Athens has increasingly found itself the butt of criticism by human rights groups, who deplore conditions in camps and the lassitude with which Greek authorities handle asylum cases. Last month several EU countries, including Britain, refused to repatriate migrants to Greece, citing its degrading conditions.
Officials accept that the wall is unlikely to be a panacea. Traffickers will find another route. “The problem is a bit like water. If stopped, it will always flow another way,” says Salamangas.
On Greece’s northern frontier, Europe is under siege. Fence or no fence, the tension, desperation and deadly games of hide-and-seek have only just begun.