Tsipras under pressure to tear down Turkish border fence

Alexis Tsipras [France24/YouTube]

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.

>>Read: Record 218,000 people crossed Mediterranean in October, UN says

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.

>>Read: Regions ask for EU assistance to tackle 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. 

“The waves of the Aegean do not just wash up dead children; they also wash up European culture on our shores," the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras recently said, saying he was ashamed for being part of the European leadership.

“The fence has played a role in the massive influx of immigrants in the Aegean Sea, but this does not mean it has to be taken down," Syriza MEP Kostas Chrysogonos told EURACTIV Greece.

“There has to be an organized process which will provide the refugees with the opportunity to safely cross the borders […] this procedure should start from Turkey. The European diplomatic representations should process and provide the relevant documents. Currently, they are not prepared at all," he added.

“You can raise walls or fences as high as your imagination goes. This will only give the illusion of security," Gianni Pittella, the leader of S&D said in an interview with EURACTIV Greece.

>>Read: Pittella: Any Grexit scenario is 'unacceptable'

The European Union has agreed on a plan, resisted by Hungary and several other ex-Communist members of the bloc, to share out 160,000 refugees among its members, a small proportion of the 700,000 refugees the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates will reach Europe's borders from the Middle East, Africa and Asia this year.

The EU is also courting Turkey with the promise of money, visa-free travel, and new accession talks if Ankara tries to stem the flow of refugees across its territory.

In the frontline of the refugee influx this year, Greece has been criticised for failing to implement EU law on registering new arrivals. Now, the EU plans to persuade refugees to wait in Greece for paid flights to other countries offering asylum, rather than risk dangerous winter treks through the Balkans.

During a mini-summit with Balkan states on 25 October, Athens committed to host 50,000 more refugees by the end of this year. Another 50,000 places should be made available in countries further north along the Balkan road. The EU has promised funds to Greece and the other countries to provide emergency help.

>> Read: Leaders clash at migration mini-summit

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