Greece: EU’s external border is hardening, attitudes are too

LYKOFI, Greece (AP) — Accompanied by a cloud of mosquitos, Police Capt. Konstantinos Tsolakidis and three other border guards set out on a boat patrol along the Evros River that forms a natural frontier between Greece and Turkey.

The route takes them through a maze formed by tall reeds, past clusters of flamingos and boat trippers visiting a nature reserve where the river fans out to meet the Mediterranean.

The Evros — called the Meric River in Turkey — runs through one of the remotest parts of Europe. It’s also becoming one of its most militarized as Greece and the wider European Union work on ways to prevent migrants from entering the country from Turkey.

In 2023, Greece plans to triple the length of a steel border wall. The five-meter (16-foot) high structure, made with sturdy steel columns, has foundation supports up to 10 meters deep and is topped with razor wire and an anti-grip metal scaling barrier.

In army-controlled areas on the Greek side of the border, the EU is funding and testing an advanced surveillance network that uses machine-learning software and an array of fixed and mobile cameras and sensors to detect migrants trying to cross the border.

Critics of the measures argue that Greece is toughening authoritarian policies against migrants and asylum-seekers, operating in the shadows in border areas that are under military control and where outside civilian monitors are denied access. A visit by Associated Press journalists to the Greek-Turkish border area took place under military and police supervision.

Police and border residents say they are just happy that the wall is working.

“It’s impossible to penetrate,” says Tsolakidis, who supervises patrols along a southern section of the border. “It’s been built in areas along the Evros where crossings were most frequent. And the deterrence capacity is 100%.”

In a post-pandemic surge of activity, more than 250,000 migrant crossings have been prevented this year at the land border between Greece and Turkey through late November, according to Greek authorities. During the same period, more than 5,000 people were detained after making it across the river.

Border guards, who use sniffer dogs, loudspeakers and powerful spotlights on patrols, say multiple incidents involving up to 1,000 migrants aren’t uncommon in a single day during the summer and early fall when water levels along the Evros hit an annual low.

Small islets, some straddling the midpoint of the river where the border technically lies, seasonally reappear, making crossings easier.

Completed in 2021, the wall currently spans 27 kilometers (17 miles) in three separate sections but is considered to be effective over an additional 10 kilometers (six miles) because of ground conditions. Authorities plan to add up to another 100 kilometers (60 miles) of the steel barrier to cover most of the 192-kilometer (120-mile) land border.

When wall building started at the border a decade ago, it was met with heated political debate and public demonstrations backed by left-wing parties and Greek human rights groups.

Reaction this time around has been muted.

With little discussion, parliament recently passed an emergency amendment sanctioning the extension, with rules for commercial tenders and cost control safeguards both waived through June 30, 2023.

A poll published by private Antenna television found that nearly two thirds of Greek voters support tougher measures to control migration, with just 8.1% arguing that policing needs to be relaxed. Backing for the tougher measures was reported across party lines, and includes more than 60% of voters from the left-wing main opposition party — which officially opposes the wall extension.

The October survey was conducted by the Marc polling company for the private Greek channel.

At one newly built section of the wall, buds of cotton from nearby farms are caught in the razor wire, while wild goats, cut off from their usual grazing grounds, scour the riverbank for something to eat.

A few hundred meters westward, 41-year-old farm worker Stavros Lazaridis tosses bales of hay onto a truck. He says the extension can’t come fast enough.

“Before the wall went up, we had a lot of trouble. More than 200 or 300 (migrants) could cross through the village in a single day. It was out of control,” he said.

The local police station has retrieved pickup trucks stolen by smugglers in border villages and abandoned near a bus station in the northern Greek port city of Thessaloniki. Piles of clothes, dumped by migrants traveling with just a small backpack, are often found near highways in the area.

Border village residents, Lazaridis says, used to be sympathetic to migrants, many of whom are fleeing wars in the Middle East to seek asylum in Europe, but they have grown tired of the nightly disruptions.

“There are old people who live in these villages, many living by themselves, and they are scared to leave their homes,” he said. “It’s quiet here now, but further north where there’s no (wall). things are still crazy.”

Polling data suggests residents of other EU frontier states, including Poland and the Baltic nations, have also become more security conscious as threats like Russia’s war in Ukraine draw closer to the bloc’s external borders.

And a flareup in a spat between Greece and Turkey over maritime boundaries and drilling rights has darkened disputes over migration.

Greece has made a series of international complaints after border police in October found 92 male migrants, stripped of their clothing, and accused Turkish authorities of deliberately pushing them over the border.

Turkey has repeatedly accused Greece of carrying out clandestine deportations, known as pushbacks, of potential asylum-seekers, and putting their lives at risk.

Athens is also under fire from major human rights groups, United Nations and EU refugee agencies, and even a government advisory panel that says hundreds of credible accounts have been gathered suggesting that often-violent pushbacks have been occurring at the Greek-Turkish border for up to 20 years.

The U.N. and EU agencies are demanding the creation of an independent border monitoring body, a request that Athens has so far failed to act upon.

Disputes with countries bordering the EU, and the often legitimate security concerns they generate, have reduced attention on migrants in need of international protection and are tempting European governments to adopt hard-line policies, argues Begum Basdas at the Center for Fundamental Rights at the Hertie School in Berlin.

“The militarization of migration is disabling us from seeing the issue as a human rights concern … and what is really worrying me is the creeping in of authoritarianism through migration management in the European Union,” Basdas said.

“People are not really critical of the securitization or wall building at the borders because they don’t really see the connection between migration and the decay of democratic values in their own environment, in their own rights,” she said.

“But, you know, those walls are literally being built around us.”

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Costas Kantouris contributed to this report from Thessaloniki.

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