Saturday

3rd Dec 2016

Investigation

Land border sealed, Greek police chief says

  • Orestiada is closer to Istanbul than Athens (Photo: Google Maps)

A chief of police in a border town in northeastern Greece says irregular migrants are no longer crossing into the country from its land border with Turkey.

Barbed-wire fences, landmines, thermal night vision cameras and regular patrols are among the tools used to stop a phenomenon the Greek state considers a national security threat.

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  • A skull and crossbone marks a minefield in Greece near the Turkish border. (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

Some 55,000 people were detected attempting to wade across the Evros River into Greece from Turkey in the region in 2011.

The figures have now dropped to near zero, says Pashalis Syritoudis, director of police in the run-down Greek border village of Orestiadas.

"In July 2012 we had 6,500 illegal migrants who passed the border. In August, we had only 1,800. In September, only 71 illegal immigrants, in October only 26 and now there are none," he told EUobserver on 22 November.

Orestiadas is six kilometres west of the Evros river on the Greek-Turkish border.

It is home to a large number of Greek police officers, military personnel and staff from the EU's Warsaw-based border control agency, Frontex.

From his modest office at the police headquarters, Syritoudis oversees border operations in a jurisdiction that covers an 80-km-long stretch of the Evros river as well as the 12.5-km-long land border with Turkey.

He says the trend stopped since Greece launched Operation Xenious Zeus in early August.

Migrants are now targeting the more treacherous sea crossings near Lesvos, Sumos, Symi and the Farmkonis islands instead.

"We have given a very clear message to the facilitators [migrant smugglers] and their source countries in North Africa and other countries that Evros is no longer an easy passage to enter Europe," Syritoudis noted.

Further south in a three-star hotel in Didymoteicho, Greek border guards take a rest from their shifts on patrol.

One officer, who did not want to give his name, told this website that his unit apprehended a young man from Pakistan in the winter whose hand had frozen solid.

"We had to cut off his hand. He told us to send him back, that he was now useless to his family. We felt sorry for him, not because he lost his hand, but because he was no longer a value to his family," he said.

He said he had also seen pregnant women and young girls trying to cross the river. In one case, a Pakistani woman had a baby on the road just 10 days before crossing the river.

"You begin to understand that things must be terrible for them to take such risks and I really feel for them but at the same time we feel unnerved, unsettled by their presence and numbers. We are terrified by this invasion," the officer said.

Land mines lurk in Greek village

Further south still, outside Syritoudis' jurisdiction, the remnants of a decades-old conflict remain buried beneath the soil of rural villages.

A skull and crossbones marks the entrance to a tiny road that leads to Gemisti, a small Greek village just a few metres away from the Egnatia A2 motorway where lorries queue to enter Turkey.

Behind the sign, buried in the thick brush, are anti-vehicle mines.

They are a legacy from the second world war and the 1946–1949 conflict in the Western Macedonia and Epirus regions in northern Greece.

But they also killed over 100 people trying to get through the strip between 1998 and 2008, says Geneva-based Landmine Monitor.

Greece signed a convention in 2005 that prohibits the use, stockpiling and transfer of anti-personnel mines as well as obliging signatories to uproot and destroy any mines left in their domain.

But the land in the Gemisti region is still deadly.

"They [migrant smugglers] would lead the migrants through the fields to clear a way. They would lie to them and say it was safe," an elderly lady - who runs one of the two village cafes and who declined to give her name - told this website.

The same story was repeated in Peplos, another village a few kilometres from Gemisti.

"Many times the Turks would tell the migrants to walk through the mines and some stepped on them ... When we found them, we would call the military to come pick up the bodies,” Michalis, an elderly farmer, said.

The Greek military did uproot almost 30,000 antipersonnel mines in 57 sites along the Turkish border in 2009, but left behind ones which are designed to be detonated by heavy vehicles such as tanks.

"The majority of casualties occurred at the border between Greece and Turkey [102], two at the border with Bulgaria, and the location of four remains unknown," the NGO, the research arm of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, told this website in an email.

Who were they?

Most of the dead people were Iraqis. But the nationalities of almost half were never properly identified.

Greece has not recorded any casualties since 2008, but Landmine Monitor said "there is a fair possibility that the data collection is not complete."

Meanwhile, a 2012 report declassified in April by the Greek ministry of defence notes that barbed wire has been added to keep people out of almost all the minefields in the border region.

But it added that migrants become victims because they are led by smugglers to the border along the River Evros at night and then instructed to ignore mine fences and markings.

"Sometimes they are even aided in cutting the wire and led into minefields," the report said.

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