Costas Kantouris, USA Today, August 22, 2012
Border police jeeps hurtle along hot, dusty tracks past potato fields on their way to the river that marks the Greek-Turkish border. Sirens blaring, the convoys have been repelling wave after wave of migrants.
Greece’s remote Evros region has turned into Europe’s main battleground against illegal immigration; more than two-thirds of people making the clandestine journey into the European Union pass through here from neighboring Turkey.
Greece launched an aggressive campaign this month to try to seal its 130-mile northeastern border, as it faces a debilitating financial crisis that has caused a swell in joblessness and a surge in racist attacks against immigrants with dark skin.
The police operation has brought nearly 2,000 additional border guards to the Turkish frontier previously manned by about 500 officers. They fanned out with dogs, night vision equipment and flat-bottomed boats for 24-hour patrols of the Evros River that forms a natural border.
In Athens, the operation is being bolstered by mass roundups of suspected illegal immigrants. They are seen lined up on the streets of the capital every day, many in handcuffs, waiting to be put in detention until they can be deported. In the first week of the crackdown in early August, police said they apprehended nearly 7,000 people for identification checks; nearly 1,700 were slated for deportation.
Uniformed police officers from 25 countries are already helping Greece guard the Evros River as part of the European Union’s border protection agency, Frontex. Greek police figures show more than 21,000 illegal migrants were arrested in the first six months of 2012 after crossing over from Turkey, with nearly all—20,841—caught along the northeastern land border rather than on one of the many Aegean islands near the Turkish coast. The figures show a nearly 29 percent increase from the same period last year.
Afghans currently make up the highest number of people crossing illegally, followed by Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and an increasing number of people from war-ravaged Syria, according to the agency.
The police operation has faced strong criticism from human rights groups, local officials, and even police officers’ associations—with criticism focusing on alleged racial profiling and police brutality.
The government insists the operation is working, reporting a drop in illegal border crossings by around 90 percent in the first week.
“This is a massive operation that is taking place in the country for the first time and it will continue in the long-term,” police spokesman Christos Manouras said.
“It is widely accepted that the expulsion of immigrants who are here illegally is a national necessity, an issue of national survival.”
Anti-racism campaigners last month said immigrants living in Greece have been targeted in at least 300 violent attacks between early April and late July.