Through the wire

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

If building a 12.5-kilometer barbed wire fence along a section of the Greek-Turkish border is the answer, then I’m really not sure what the question is. It certainly can’t be “What will keep undocumented migrants from entering Greece?” There is no way it’s “What will solve Greece’s immigration problem?” And it’s highly unlikely that it’s “What will deal a blow to the multimillion-euro trafficking rings that smuggle people across the border?” However, if the question is “What’s the best way of making it look like we’re doing something to tackle illegal immigration while doing very little at all?” or “How can we shift the public debate so people are talking about immigrants rather than the economy or our own failings?” then perhaps the government has hit upon a fantastic solution.

The recent announcement by Citizens’ Protection Minister Christos Papoutsis that the government plans to erect the fence, equipped with thermal cameras, between the villages of Nea Vyssa and Kastianes in Evros, northeastern Greece, bears all the hallmarks of a populist move designed to pander to the masses and obfuscate the real issue. It’s a piece of vacuous policymaking that will play well on the TV news but will do nothing to alleviate the hardship of thousands of migrants in Athens, Patra and other parts of the country, nor instill any long-term confidence in Greeks who are concerned by the inability of successive governments to muster a coherent immigration policy.

The fence idea is a waste of time because it simply won’t work, on any level. First of all, it won’t stop or even stem the steady flow of exasperated people from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, north Africa and various other parts of the world from trying to reach Europe either to escape persecution or death or in the hope of finding work and getting a foothold on a viable future. Papoutsis’s concept overlooks the fact that those who make this often perilous journey cover thousands of kilometers in difficult conditions, over mountains, along valleys and across rivers and seas. And then, when they reach Greece, it gets even more treacherous. According to the UNHCR, some 50 immigrants drowned last year while trying to cross the Evros River. The International Campaign to Ban Land Mines says that more than 80 migrants have died and over 70 have been injured while attempting to cross through minefields in Evros since 1994. So some latticed wire is hardly going to deter them, especially when they have paid their life savings (a few thousand euros) to get as far as the Greek border.

Greece is not the first country to consider the folly of trying to block access to illegal immigrants by putting physical barriers in their way. Perhaps the best-known recent example of a similar venture is the construction in 2005 of a fence on the US-Mexico border in Arizona. Spanning almost 1,000 kilometers and constructed at a cost of more than $2 billion, the fence appears to have had only a marginal impact on illegal immigration. Earlier this month, documentary maker Roy Germano highlighted the barrier’s futility by filming two teenage girls climbing it in 18 seconds. It’s estimated that it would cost $6.5 billion over 20 years to maintain this monument to nonsense. Last year, the US ditched plans to construct a virtual fence consisting of cameras, radar and sensors, but no wire, across its border with Mexico. After spending $1.4 billion working on it for three years, the contractor, Boeing, admitted that the virtual fence only “sort of” worked.

This spectacular failure on the other side of the Atlantic makes the Greek government’s choice even more galling. Greece will never be able to prevent illegal immigration on its own: As long as Turkey turns a blind eye to the trafficking rings operating on its territory and the European Union does not treat people smuggling as a breach of its own borders rather than just Greece’s, then very little progress will be made. Apart from a string of ministers sounding off to the local press in an attempt to appear tough, Greece has done little to draw Europe’s attention to the issue. The first real breakthrough was convincing late last year the EU’s border agency, Frontex, to send a clutch of its officers to help with patrols in Evros.

The opportunity for Greece to gain know-how and for EU representatives to see first-hand what is turning into a humanitarian crisis is priceless. Building trust has always been much more effective than building walls or fences. However, the exercise has also exposed Greece’s failings. Germany, for instance, has expressed concern about the way illegal immigrants are treated and has warned its 26-man contingent of officers that it would be illegal for them to participate in some of the actions carried out by their Greek counterparts. Perhaps the government should be concentrating its efforts on creating a fair and competent immigration process if it wants to force the EU into action. As long as Greece fails to get its act together, other Europeans can point the finger of blame at the perennially hapless Greeks. But if Athens can show it’s able to behave humanely and set up an efficient process for dealing with undocumented migrants and asylum applications, then the onus would be on its partners to assume their responsibilities, which are considerable given that the vast majority of the thousands of people who cross the Evros border clandestinely each month do so because they want to end up in another EU country, not Greece.

Greece will not get anywhere with public relations stunts like building fences if it cannot untangle its own bureaucracy and overcome its own incompetence. It will not convince anyone that it wants to get tough on illegal immigration when it allows people smugglers to operate in various parts of Greece with apparent impunity. It will fail to earn any sympathy if it cannot take the initiative in dealing with a problem whose impact is being felt in neighborhoods of Athens, Patra and Thessaloniki, not in Brussels, Berlin or Paris.

Papoutsis’s barrier might stop a few thousand would-be migrants each year but Greece currently has a backlog of 47,000 asylum applications. These are people who have not only crossed into the country but are here, living and, if they are lucky, working but doing so while in an emotional limbo, not knowing where their future lies. It’s hypocrisy to blame other Europeans for not providing assistance or to pin your hopes on nothing more than a jumped-up garden structure when you have not made the slightest effort yourself until now.

The government submitted to Parliament last week a bill foreseeing the creation of an independent asylum service to handle applications rather than dumping them in the lap of the overburdened and undertrained police – something that human rights groups and the UNHCR had been calling for. It’s a travesty that PASOK should not hold this policy up as an example of how 21st-century Greece should respond to a 21st-century problem. Its insistence on giving the Evros fence top billing is the sign of a government that is desperate to be liked and which wants to tap into the growing skepticism about migrants. To do so at a time when nationalism is on the rise and when illegal immigrants are becoming soft and defenseless targets is politics of the lowest order. To nudge the public debate from the dire state of the economy, what our politicians did to lead us into this situation and what they are doing to get us out of it is political opportunism of the worst kind. Papoutsis may like to think that his fence will be high and mighty but it’s already clear that it’s as low and dirty as they come.

Nick Malkoutzis

4 responses to “Through the wire

  1. A thoughtful and excellently constructed piece as always Nick, such a pity that clear thinking individuals are not running the country, but show me a place where that is the case nowadays. Once you put a bunch of politicians in a room, nothing good can come from it, put ordinary people there nowadays, ditto. Man has lost the initiative and made his life and environment (the world) so complex, it has become ungovernable.

    I still marvel every day as to the similarities of the place I escaped with my family and our lives intact from, to the place that we escaped to, Greece. A very similar immigration problem exists where we came from, but on a much larger scale. It has been ignored (same as in Greece) for a period of 16 years. There are now, according to reports other than the Governments’, which are not to be believed about nearly anything they report on or say (just like in Greece), a total of around 6 million immigrants living in horrible conditions in squatter camps and inner city slums all over South Africa, in the major cities of Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban it is a scourge. The government quotes figures of 45 000. The immigrants have taken the locals’ menial jobs (in SA un-official unemployment stands at 45% for the4 past 25 years, the ANC Government have it at 22%), they have brought with them if not the actual criminals, the very conditions under which criminality thrives, and they are using the country as a refuge, with the citizens of an already poor country incapable of catering for its own paying the price. They have further boosted and complicated an already “out of control” criminal element in the country, whilst placing further strain on the already overburdened and not coping criminal justice system, already overrun with local criminals, of which a large percentage are the very people governing the country. Very similar to Greece, a general lawlessness has emerged, the SA population largely ignores the rule of law, starting with simple laws designed to improve the quality of life and the right to life of all citizens, like traffic laws, but many going far beyond the traffic laws. Many drivers in SA are very similar to the ones in Greece, as soon as they get behind the wheel of a car, truck, bus etc., they turn into a rally driver that is always late for everything and will disregard any law and gives a hoot about the safety of others on the road. No visible policing, incompetent, lazy and corrupt cops and way too many cars on the road exacerbate the situation. The public health system is collapsing, further stressed by illegal immigrants using it at will. The water and sanitation infrastructure is collapsing, perhaps not because of the immigrants, but they are placing further strain on the country’s infrastructure in all respects.

    Not unlike SA, Greece now faces the very same problem, that is how to deal humanely with the immigrants that are already resident in the country (undesirable as they may be), whilst trying in vain to stop their family members, friends and associates from crossing the porous borders and taking up residency in Greece using those already here as a springboard, undisturbed by a lame government, too scared to do anything as they will be labelled racist, inhuman or in breach of EU Immigration laws. Left long enough, as it now has in Greece as well, the situation becomes simply impossible to reverse without Hitler type tactics, and consequently the blaming game starts before the reality of a completely changed (cosmopolitan they will call it) population make-up sets in. Xenophobic attacks will become common place in Greece, just like it is in SA, The UK, France and Germany, as the younger citizens try to chase the immigrants away, but it is misguided and will not have the desired effect.

    Not dissimilar to SA, the Greek population is at loggerheads with its government, some believe the government will still find the solutions to the myriad of problems the country(s) face including illegal immigration, and continue in vain to vote for rotten, corrupt, and incompetent politicians that have no clue how to fix the problems that many of them were part and parcel of creating. In any case in SA they are far too busy lining their own nests, with 70% of the cabinet involved in private business, other than their government job, almost every one of the these private business interests acquired through their government contacts and liaison with each other like a merry band of crooks. Watch out for the collapse of SA, its coming, despite what you read in the media and what the leaders of the world are propagating, they are turning a blind eye, just like they did in the case of Greece and the raiding of government (people’s) coffers for a period of 30 years.

    SA had a fence along its Northern border years ago, very effective when the apartheid governments were in charge and they deployed thousands of troops (conscription) to patrol the border, but those now running the country would tell you the Africans from north of the border did not want to come to SA at the time anyway (nonsense, they tried in their thousands) mainly because the whites were in charge, so the efficacy of the fence was a myth if you ask them. However, despite my conviction that the fence in SA did work at one time, I am with you 100% that the planned fence in Greece is everything you said it would be, a poor and costly PR exercise that will do nothing to solve the already existing problem. In a country with a porous border made up of 70% seafront, with hundreds of islands where there is little if any border control, it is impossible to stop the influx of illegal immigrants.

    UNLESS, the people and the government of Greece knew the extent of the scourge they have released upon themselves through in-action, and they take it very serious and make it one of the priority areas of government, and institute a visible, effective and ruthless border and domestic policing program to stop these illegal immigrants coming, combined with an intense program to arrest and repatriate those already in the country. However, this will not happen, so Greece is forever stuck in this mud-bath of illegal immigration, and it will forever change the face of this nation, perhaps not a bad thing, despite the fact that the overall majority of the illegal immigrants are undesirable, not trained, not educated, from non Christian religions (minor issue?), and will inevitably cause tensions wherever they settle.

    I really wish there was a strain of good news about this situation, but apart from the provision of cheap labour (exploitative and disrupting), there is nothing to be said for these immigrants. Perhaps accepting the fact that the face of the Greek nation, its societal make-up and way of life has and will forever be changing hence forth, and finding positive solutions to the situations faced now and in future, will make life more bearable for all concerned.

    • Hello again GreeceisOK?? Welcome back and Happy New Year to you. Thanks for your comment and sharing your experiences from South Africa. What you say about the former fence there and the one planned in Evros is very interesting. I thing we both agree that Greece is now paying the price for the lack of action and initiative on illegal immigration in previous years. Where I might disagree with you is on what impact this immigration has had on Greece – yes, we can all point to it as a destabilising factor but we should also not forget that were it not for immigration, much of it illegal, Greek farming would have vanished beyond trace over the last decade and the construction and building maintenance sectors would have also been adversly effected. Beyond that, I think it’s been a good thing that Greece has learnt to accept other races, languages and religions – it is, after all, representative of the world we live in. The tragedy of this situation is that Greece could have benefited more and the undocumented immigrants could have been spared some suffering had the country had a coherent policy in place with regards to how many migrants it can accomodate, where it can find jobs and housing for them and how it will treat them until they are accepted into Greek society or repatriated.

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  3. Hi Nick, and a very happy and prosperous New Year to you to, Kali Gronja.

    Fair point I suppose, about illegal immigrants saving the bacon of the Greek farming sector and providing the building blocks to plug the possible implosion of the building and maintenance sector, all the while giving carrots to the immigration laws of the country. The impact of all this will only be clear once the dust settles, and my guess is it will not be a pretty picture.

    You intimate that IF Greece had a coherent immigration policy, things would have been different, but I am afraid I don’t agree. A policy without the requisite implementation and follow through, which surely will have been lacking in the unstable and ineffective Greek political environment of late, would have only been that, a coherent policy. Greece is unfortunate in that it is the gateway to Europe for these people, with many of them (most) getting stuck in Greece for a substantial period before moving on to other countries, and coherent policy or not, they will not be stopped in the context of the “humanitarian elitist” orgy permeating throughout the world’s top political structures. I have seen countless policy documents and draft legislation that is intended to bring order and prosperity to any number of countries fail because the bureaucracy are only clever enough to draft same, not interested in the frustrating and oft impossible task of implementation their pipe dreams, and more often than not, missing the mark by a mile in the planning and implementation process. Would it have been “better” at least to have a coherent policy, I seriously doubt it.

    Accepting other races, languages and religions? Far from it, unless one of us is living in cloud cuckoo land (may be me, what do I know about Greece and its people?). In terms of accepting other races, all I see and hear is grunting and moaning about the Albanians, the Georgians and lately when I spent X-Mas in Athens, the Paki’s and the Bangladeshi’s, with every scourge on the face of the fertile Greek soil being blamed on them. In Athens, every petty or serious crime, assault, armed robbery and the like is blamed on the these outsiders, whilst I see a general lawlessness pervading all of Greece, similar to what happened in South Africa over the past 16 years. This week alone, I saw two reports on Greek TV about citizens up in arms about illegal immigrants, and getting rather militant about it.

    In Myrina, the capital of Lemnos, where I reside for now, all petty crimes and vandalism that to me look very much like the work of bored, ill disciplined Greek kids out to cause mischief and mayhem, is blamed on these people as well, even though their numbers are really small here. The Greek police to me appear to be a rudderless, lazy, arrogant organisation that has lost its sharp edge and has no clue what their primary function or objective is or should be. I have seen it before (a pathetic police force going downhill), and it leads to no pretty conclusion over time.

    Other than that, it’s all fine and dandy here in Greece for us immigrants.

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