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.