Greek town becomes flash point in war against Muslim immigrants

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 11, 2010; 10:15 PM

NEA VISSA, GREECE - This little farming town on the edge of Europe, where the crosses of Greek Orthodox churches face Turkey's minarets scarcely a mile away, has become the latest battleground in the continent's war against a flood of unwanted immigrants from the strife-torn Muslim world.

The European Union's joint border patrol force, Frontex, dispatched armed international guards last week to reinforce Greek patrols around Nea Vissa, seeking to seal an eight-mile stretch of frontier that has become the main corridor for illegal entry into Europe for thousands of fortune-seeking Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians, Pakistanis and North Africans. The 200-member pan-European deployment marked the first such Frontex operation along the borders of one of the European Union's 27 member nations. Greek officials called it a belated recognition that the onrush of immigrants here is a problem that must be dealt with by all of Europe.

The French immigration minister, Eric Besson, said the posting of French and other foreign border guards should be seen as a sign of determination by Europe to stanch the flow. "France is totally mobilized to struggle with Greece against the networks that exploit immigrants in defiance of the most basic humanitarian laws," he said on a quick visit to the border.

The growing presence of immigrants, particularly Muslims who bring with them their own customs and religious practices, has become one of the main irritants in Western European societies. Immigration has become a prominent and sometimes sour part of the political debate even in countries with long liberal traditions, including Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands and France.

Over the bridges

Nea Vissa, surrounded by cotton and garlic fields in a tongue of Greek territory lying between Bulgaria and Turkey 350 miles northeast of Athens, is where the trouble begins. Most of the 160-mile Greece-Turkey border is defined by the Evros River as it winds down to the Aegean Sea, making passage difficult. But a quirk of history has placed the line a little west of the river, meaning illegal immigrants can cross the waterway over bridges on the Turkish side and sneak across the border in relative safety on dry land.

Greek authorities calculate they arrested about 45,000 illegal immigrants in the first half of the year, most of them near here, accounting for 90 percent of the illegal immigrants taken into custody in all of Western Europe. As many as 350 illegal immigrants a day were being captured in the Evros Valley farmlands around Nea Vissa, according to Maj. Athanasios Kokkalakis of the Interior Ministry.

Besides those taken into custody, at least 15 percent more evade Greek authorities, he said. For almost all, the goal is travel onward - to Italy, France, Germany, Britain and Scandinavia - in search of new homes in societies where the economies are strong, the social welfare systems are generous and, above all, there are no wars.

"We are only a stepping stone," said Kokkalakis.

Turkey, the other stepping stone, has refused to allow arrested immigrants to be sent back across the border, except nationals of countries with land borders with Turkey. This excludes the bulk of those taken into custody, who are from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and, increasingly, North Africa.

Responding to Europe's concerns, Turkish officials have noted their country is only a way station, and that they are as much a victim of the immigrant flood as Greece and the other E.U. countries.

Captured immigrants from those countries are taken to Interior Ministry detention centers for processing. Because of crowding, most are freed after a few days with an order to return home within two months. Typically, specialists said, they tear up the order and go on their way.

"It is a cat-and-mouse game," said Robert Dutfchmann, 28, a German Federal Police inspector patrolling outside Nea Vissa with Frontex colleagues. from the Netherlands.

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