The Greek government is facing increasing pressure to take down a fence along its land border with Turkey, and stop refugees from making the deadly journey to Europe via the Mediterranean. EURACTIV Greece reports.
The debt-ridden country is struggling to cope with a surge of refugees, many fleeing the civil war in Syria. Last month, 218,394 people crossed the sea — all but 8,000 of them landing in Greece — compared with 219,000 arrivals during all of last year, UN figures showed.
The 12-kilometer fence was built in 2011 at the land border with Turkey, along the Evros River. Antonis Samaras, the conservative premier, decided to proceed with the fence, in order to stem the rising number of illegal immigrants entering the country via Turkey.
The European Commission reacted at the time, saying that it “would not effectively discourage immigrants or smugglers who would simply seek alternative routes into the European Union”.
But Samaras stuck to his plan and blamed the opposition Syriza for “willing to bring illegal immigrants to Greece, give them citizenship, insurance and hospital care” with no money.
“The fence has played a very positive role and it is important to remain,” the New Democracy leader insisted before the January 2015 general election.
The fence indeed decreased the number of refugees entering the country, but forced them to choose the deadly path of the Mediterranean.
The fence must be torn down
Centre-right Christiana Kalogirou, regional governor of the North Aegean, took a different line from her conservative New Democracy party, saying “the fence issue should be reviewed under the new dramatic circumstances”.
She stressed that the EU should put pressure on Turkey to make more efforts against the smugglers and urged the EU to unlock the funds related to the refugee crisis.
“We are trying to do our best […] Lesvos island receives every day 5,000-6,000 people,” she added.
“We want to, but we cannot [tear down the fence] due to technical reasons,” Minister for Migration Policy Ioannis Mouzalas recently stated.
Syriza changed its mind
“When Syriza was in opposition it heavily criticised the government for the fence in Evros […] Now that he is in the government, it seems that he changed his mind, as he did on other issues as well,” Charis Theocharis, a lawmaker with the centrist Potami party, told EURACTIV Greece.
The MP continued, saying that if Tsipras does mean that it’s Greece’s humanitarian duty to contribute to resolving the refugee crisis, “there should be a provision for a safe cross [for refugees] via Evros fence in order to avoid the tragedies in the Aegean Sea”.
“Especially now that the weather conditions will deteriorate,” he noted.
Syriza: We cannot take it down
Nikos Toskas, Deputy Minister for the Protection of the Citizen of Greece, said that there were no prerequisites to take down the fence at the moment.
“The fence does not send the refugees to the islands, this argument doesn’t make any sense,” he stressed.
The minister continued, saying that the Greek fence should not be compared to “inhumane” fences in Central Europe. Such a comparison would be “unfair”, he noted.
Reactions within Syriza
Syriza’s human rights department and the youth wing of the leftist party, though, have a different view on the issue.
In a statement, the human rights department said that “the fight against fences and exclusions, against fortress Europe, unites a wide range of movements and people across Europe”.
“Let’s not forget that the first fence was built in Greece”, it continued.
Syriza members also urged the government to respect the international treaties and create safe passages for the refugees in order for them to be able to ask for asylum.
“The government should prioritise solidarity and humanism against hatred and fear.”
Syriza’s youth wing took a harder line, blaming EU leaders for the current deadlock.
“The fortress Europe and the inhuman obsessions of its leaderships are to blame for the hundreds drowned people. The criminal neglect of the European leadership has paved the way for far-right practices that we currently see in Hungary and beyond, with armoured borders and repression,” the young leftists said.
The refugees are neither a “national threat” nor “invaders” and no fence can stop the waves of desperate people fleeing the horror of war, they added.
“The fence in Evros should be immediately taken down. The government should adopt the recommendations of international bodies and proceed with the creation of safe and legal channels for refugees in Evros and elsewhere”, it stressed.
“It should also accelerate the creation of reception centres and registration procedures in the islands strengthen the existing accommodation centres and create new ones”, it added.