Greece to complete anti-migrant wall 'very shortly'
By Honor Mahony
Greece has said it will quickly finish construction of a controversial wall designed to keep out migrants, claiming that the thousands of people coming into the country each year threaten "social peace."
"The construction will begin very shortly and will also be completely very shortly," the country's citizen protection minister Micalis Chrisochoidis said during a visit to Brussels on Monday (2 April).
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The three-metre-high barrier is to block a 12.5km-long strip of land between Turkey and Greece. The rest of the border between the two countries is formed by the Evros river.
Athens says almost 130,000 immigrants entered Greece via the land crossing last year.
According to Chrisochoidis, the wall is a "temporary solution" that has "substantive and symbolic importance."
He painted a picture of society almost at breaking point due to the thousands of migrants who make their way from, traditionally, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan but now, since the Arab Spring, also Morocco, Algeria and Syria.
"The very essence of social peace is being questioned by this terrible humanitarian crisis. Greece is no longer ready to accept this time bomb in the foundation of its society," the minister added.
He noted that the country - which is also mired in a severe economic crisis - has just agreed a public health programme to check migrants for infectious diseases.
He said the barrier will be funded by national money, after the European Commission recently dismissed the whole project as "pointless."
Standing alongside the Greek minister, Cecilia Malmstrom, the EU commissioner in charge of home affairs, said: "We have not considered that as a priority. It's a national project."
She drew attention to Athens' poor treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, adding: "We need more reception centres. We need to address the humanitarian situation where people who are applying for asylum can get decent treatment."
For his part, Chrisochoidis promised that Greece would firm up its returns policy and pointed to the upcoming opening of its first border detention centre.
He indicated that Greece - which has come under fire from fellow EU countries not just for shoddy treatment of asylum seekers but also for letting too many people slip into the Union - expects more money to deal with the situation after 2014, when a new multi-annual European budget begins.
The Greek problem also has a foreign policy dimension.
Some of the country's refugee issues would be helped if neighbouring Turkey signed a readmission agreement - involving taking back migrants - with the EU.
But Turkey has let the readmission pact - technically-speaking, ready to be signed for the past two years - gather dust as it waits for the EU to first open visa liberalisation talks.
"Of course there is a link," Malmstrom, said. "I hope that we will be able to launch a visa dialogue with Turkey very soon," she added.