Greece: Europe's gateway for illegal immigration

The Associated Press
Thursday, November 4, 2010; 12:43 PM

NEA VYSSA, Greece -- They huddle together, shivering violently in the freezing morning, shoes and trousers soaked. Some cradle babies or lead toddlers by the hand. Bewildered children cry.

Fleeing war or poverty, these migrants and legions of others have sneaked across the Greek-Turkish border illegally to the promised land of European Union riches. The numbers are staggering. Greece now accounts for 90 percent of the bloc's detected illegal border crossings, compared to 75 percent in 2009. Greek authorities reported 45,000 illegal border crossings in just the first half of this year, according to European border authorities.

Greece has become the migrant world's gateway to Europe. It's a crisis that accelerated as most other smuggling routes to the EU became blocked off due to increased sea patrols and countries such as Italy inking agreements to deport illegals.

The crush is compounded by what is known as the Dublin procedure, under which EU countries return illegal migrants to the first EU country they entered - in most cases, Greece.

The debt-hobbled country says it can no longer cope - and has called for emergency help. For the first time, the EU's border agency Frontex is deploying rapid intervention teams. The 175-strong force, with officers drawn from 26 countries, began arriving in the northeastern town of Orestiada this week for a two-month mission, and started their first border patrols at dawn on Thursday.

The officers, accompanied by Greek police, are carrying out foot and vehicle patrols, while thermal imaging vehicles and an aircraft will boost surveillance capabilities.

"The number of irregular migrants crossing illegally the land border near Orestiada has now reached alarming proportions," Frontex said in a statement, with 120-350 people crossing per day between mid-September and mid-October.

Apart from patrols, the teams - which include interpreters, interviewers and experts in false documents - will also carry out screening operations for those migrants who do make it in. They come armed with thermal imaging vans, a helicopter and dozens of patrol cars and buses.

"Our objective is to provide our assistance to the Greek police, our experience in immigration issues," said Benjamin Lecointe of the French border police, who was on patrol with two officers from Portugal and Romania.

It is the farming village of Nea Vyssa, about 10 kilometers (6 miles) north of Orestiada, that has become the flashpoint in the country's immigration crisis. Along with nearby village Kastanies, it lies on the brief stretch of border where the 206 kilometer (128 mile) land frontier with Turkey doesn't run along the middle of the Evros River.

From January to September, 31,400 illegal crossings were reported at just this 12.5 kilometer (eight mile) section of the border, Frontex said - compared, for example, to the peak annual total of 30,300 reported by Spain for the Canary Islands in 2006, when that country was hit by an immigration wave.

Migrants have used this crossing point for years, but in far fewer numbers, say locals, who have watched with a mixture of confusion and anxiety as teams of destitute people traipse through their streets each day. These days, police simply do not have the manpower to stem the flow.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Associated Press