Fortress Europe: a Greek wall close up
21.12.12 @ 09:19
Nea Vyssa, Greece - A 12.5-km-long fence rolled with barbwire runs across plots of garlic and asparagus on the Greek-Turkish border.
For the small farming community at Nea Vyssa, the presence of Greek military and police is a welcome relief from the mass of irregular migrants crossing from Turkey on a daily basis before the summer.
"Sometimes a hundred or so would arrive in one day and wait for the train to come," one local villager said.
Anyone not from the village must first get permission from federal authorities to approach the fence. Once granted, the visitor is taken to see the barbwire mesh in a military and police escort.
The barrier - bankrolled by the Greek state - was roundly condemned by EU officials when it was first announced over the summer.
Greece has been arguing its border is an EU issue which merits EU help. But it also sees the mass arrivals of migrants as a threat to its Hellenic identity and national security.
The 450,000 Greeks who voted for the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party on the back of a virulent anti-immigration campaign illustrate the strength of feeling.
Amid the Greek foot patrols and watchtowers are some 23 thermal vision cameras co-funded by the EU. Dispersed along the fence, they can detect people approaching from the Turkish side.
The surveillance technology, used several hundred metres away from the run-down village of some 500 people, is part of a broader effort by the EU to tighten border control under the so-called European Border Surveillance System (Eurosur).
Launched following a 2006 study by the Warsaw-based border control agency, Frontex, Eurosur aims to regulate how the EU’s 7,400 km of land and its 57,800 km of coastline borders are managed by creating a "situational awareness" of troubled spots.
The system will determine how and what information is exchanged among all the different authorities from customs officers to the police.
EU-level surveillance input is also envisaged, with the legislative regulations scheduled to be finalised in October 2013.
"Eurosur is very much based on the idea that member states are having the responsibilities and also owning the information. So we are not looking into each others' data bases, we are pushing information that should be shared," said Erik Berglund, Frontex director of capacity building, at a seminar in November.
The regulation has gained support among member states and more recently the European Parliament whose committee on civil liberties amended the draft legislation to include provisions on saving migrant lives at sea.
"Saving the lives of migrants in the Mediterranean sea is absolutely necessary. Eurosur will improve cooperation between EU member states and the Frontex border control agency," said Dutch Liberal MEP Jan Mulder, who drafted the parliament’s position.
The borders of Europe
Meanwhile, watchtowers on either side of the shimmering barbwire overlook a territory that once spelled hope for tens of thousands of people entering Greece from as far away as Afghanistan.
Last year, some 55,000 were detected wading across the Evros river that forms the Greek and Turkish border.
Prior to 2009, migrants opted to cross over from the Aegean sea, hopping from island to island in skiffs or on just about anything that floats.
The same year, Greek authorities uprooted thousands of anti-personal mines on the border. But they left the anti-vehicle explosives buried - some only metres away from the lorries queuing up to enter Turkey on the Egnatia A2 motorway.
With the anti-personal mines gone, the migratory flow took a sudden shift from the sea to the land border and, more intensely, to the 12.5-km-wide territory where the Evros river loops back into Turkey.
The fence has won praise, especially among those who patrol, armed with weapons, along its edge.
Pashalis Syritoudis, director of police in the Greek border town Orestiadas, oversees border control in the area, including the territory along the fence.
His job, to keep the flow of migrants from ever reaching its former peak, is backed by a larger sense of purpose as a guarantor of protection for the whole of Europe.
"The presence of Frontex here shows that Europe understands the problem. The borders of Evros are the borders of Europe," he told this website.
The number of people who attempt to cross the border has plummeted. Those apprehended in the south of Evros are now sent to Greece’s naval military base in Poros Island.
But elsewhere, the figures are on the rise.
To the south, migrants debark on an almost daily basis by boat from Izmir in Turkey. The treacherous journey has ended the lives of many.
In September, 61 died when their boat sank off the coast. Another 20 died in December, some of their bodies washed up on the pristine tourist beaches in Lesbos.
A contact at Medicine Sans Frontiers in Athens said they registered around 1,000 people attempting to cross by boat in the last week of September.
Around 60 percent of those are Syrian nationals debarking from the northern Aegean islands.
Further north, migrants are being pushed through Bulgaria and eventually into Croatia or Serbia. From there, they enter Europe - with hopes, but few guarantees, for a decent life after their long journeys.
This article is the first in a series by EUobserver examining aspects of immigration to Europe. The next article will be published towards the end of December 2012.