A team of more than 100 border guards from Frontex, the EU's external border cooperation agency, started work at the Greek-Turkish border on Friday (5 November).
According to the Greek authorities, the concerted effort has managed to curb the influx of illegal immigrants by 25%.
The initial patrols by the Frontex team – most of whom are to be stationed at a 12-klilometre section of a river border between the towns of Nea Vyssa and Orestiada – were supposed to be reconnaissance exercises.
But the mixed patrols of Frontex guards and Greek border police managed to arrest 115 illegal immigrants in just a few hours.
The Frontex mission to Greece was launched on Friday with a ceremony attended by EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström, Frontex Executive Director Ilkka Laitinen and France’s Immigration Minister Eric Besson, the Greek daily Kathimerini reported. Their Greek host was Christos Papoutsis, the minister for citizens' protection.
Papoutsis expressed the Greek government's satisfaction with the EU's immediate response to Athens' request for help, stressing that the phenomenon was not just local.
"These are not just the borders of Greece, they are the borders of Europe," he said, according to Greek news agency ANA.
The Greek minister, while noting that Greece and the EU were sympathetic to the plight of illegal migrants, also pointed to the existence of organised rings "trafficking in human hope" and stressed the need to "guarantee EU cohesion and solidarity".
Since border controls with Spain, Italy and Malta were introduced in the Mediterranean Sea, the main flows of illegal people trafficking have been concentrated on the Turkey-Greece land border.
According to press reports, Greek police have intercepted 34,000 people in the area since the beginning of 2010, against 9,000 the previous year. Among the illegal migrants are Afghans, Pakistanis and Somalis as well as North and Western Africans, who now appear to prefer this itinerary over the more direct sea route to Spain.
Commissioner Malmström was quoted as saying that the EU was close to agreeing a readmission deal with Ankara, meaning that Turkey would agree to take back onto its territory illegal immigrants crossing into the EU.
In the meantime, Sweden stopped sending back asylum seekers to Greece. Under the so-called Dublin II regulation, illegal immigrants must be sent back to the country where they entered the EU. But the appalling conditions in Greek asylum centres prompted Sweden not to send asylum seekers back to Greece for the time being.
Instead, the asylum seekers may be sent to countries that they crossed on their way from Greece to Sweden, said Tobias Billström, Sweden's migration minister.
To join or not to join Schengen
In the meantime, diplomats told EurActiv that Greece's porous borders with Turkey could become an obstacle for EU newcomers Bulgaria and Romania, who have set themselves the objective of joining the Schengen border-free area in 2011.
The crossing of illegal immigrants at Nea Vyssa–Orestiada is only a few kilometres from the Greece-Bulgaria border.
For the time being, Bulgaria’s borders are well guarded and according to the Bulgarian press, no immigration spill-over has been taking place in Bulgaria.
But when Bulgaria and Romania join Schengen, the Greece-Bulgaria border may no longer be guarded and the situation could change, experts warned.