Tag Archives: Turkey

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


All hail the chief

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

George Papandreou took a leaf out of Barack Obama’s book by setting targets for his first 100 days in office – but even the US president would have been impressed by the dynamic start that the PASOK leader has made to his premiership, naming a youthful cabinet, displaying an unprecedented level of openness and holding talks with Turkish officials.

Following on from the inertia of the final days of the New Democracy government, it wouldn’t have been hard for the new administration to seem like a team of over-achievers. But there have been some genuinely positive signs in PASOK’s first week in government; signs which suggest that Papandreou and his team have identified weaknesses and are intent on fixing them as quickly as possible. Of course, whether they manage to is a completely different story.

Papandreou’s first chance to impress was with the announcement of his cabinet. To a large extent, he made the positive impact he wanted. The fact that roughly two thirds of the members of the new government have not served before, and therefore are not tainted by previous failings or misdeeds, is a sign that the new prime minister wants to stick to his promise of renewal.

Also, the presence of nine women (a record for Greece) in the slightly streamlined cabinet adds to the impression that a new page in the history of Greek politics is being written. Although Costas Karamanlis had seven women in his previous government, most were in deputy minister positions, whereas Papandreou has put many of his female colleagues – Anna Diamantopoulou (Education), Mariliza Xenogiannakopoulo (Health), Louka Katseli (Economy ), Tina Birbili (Environment) and Katerina Batzeli (Agriculture) – in charge of their departments.

Many of the members of the new government are close associates of Papandreou, which one might expect, but he has also seasoned his administration with a sprinkling of old hands such as Haris Kastanidis (Justice), Dimitris Reppas (Infrastructure) and Michalis Chrysochoidis (Citizens’ Protection). If the cabinet were a football team, you would say that it seems to have a good blend of youth and experience.

The tough choice for Papandreou was what to do with Evangelos Venizelos – the precocious star of the team. Rather than sideline him, the prime minister gave him a meaty portfolio (Defence) but appointed another political bruiser, Theodoros Pangalos, above him by reviving the long-forgotten post of deputy prime minister.

It seems a shrewd move as Venizelos – who so aggressively challenged Papandreou for the PASOK leadership after the disastrous election result in 2007 – can’t be disappointed by the post but equally will find it difficult to use it as a pulpit for promoting himself should the prime minister’s popularity or grip on the government begin to wane.

The unveiling of the cabinet, however, did not come without some negative aspects. The first was the confusion over who would fill the posts at the newly created Environment Ministry. Papandreou has made much of his green credentials and the intention of his government, unlike the previous ones, to prevent Greece from turning into a barren wasteland.

Therefore, it was surprising that just a couple of hours before the cabinet was named it should emerged that the Ecologist Greens, who narrowly failed to make it into Parliament, were approached with regard to one of their members either taking over at the Environment Ministry or at least becoming deputy minister.

The exact details of the offer remain sketchy, which is doubly worrying as it seems the whole affair was handled in an amateur fashion. One would have thought that since this ministry was one of his priorities, Papandreou would have a Plan A, B and C for how we would make appointments to it and would not have to rely on last-ditch leaps.

The overtures to the Ecologist Greens were in one sense a welcome piece of “hands across the aisle” politics, in a country where the only thing usually crossing the aisles in Parliament are verbal volleys. But the slapdash way in which it was handled undid any of the positives to come out of it. The Ecologist Greens were probably right to turn down the offer as in the end it looked more like a political stunt than a genuine approach.

The other aspect of the cabinet that deserves some scrutiny is Papandreou’s decision to appoint himself as foreign minister. Although he has experience in the position and is at his best when he is rubbing shoulders with the world’s leaders and thinkers, it is also an indictment of the team that he has assembled that he does not feel there is anyone there – at least for the time being – that can do as good a job as him.

Saying that, if Papandreou intends this to be a short-term appointment, giving him enough time to sort out some pressing problems, it could turn out to be a masterstroke. He wasted no time in making his first contact with the Turkish leadership, speaking to both Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the sidelines of a Balkan leaders’ meeting in Istanbul on Friday, four days after being sworn in.

It seems that Papandreou’s intention is to get relations with Turkey back on an even keel, so that this can then have a positive knock-on effect on negotiations in Cyprus. If these two areas stop to weigh Greek diplomacy down, then the prime minister/foreign minister can focus on sorting out the name dispute with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).

None of the three will be easy tasks but Papandreou clearly has faith in his diplomatic ability. He has shown that he plans not to waste time either. If this new dynamic leads to solutions, then, who knows, maybe like Obama, Papandreou will also be picking up a Nobel Peace Prize as well. For now though, he will settle for getting through the first 100 days of his government with as many plaudits and as much positive energy as the first week.

Nick Malkoutzis