Refugees Stir Greek Anger

Marc Champion and Alkman Granitsas, Wall Street Journal, January 18, 2011

Turkey’s decision to open its borders for visa-free travel from countries in the Middle East and Africa has helped unleash a flood of illegal immigrants into the European Union, border officials here said Monday.

The main conduit is just outside this unassuming Greek town near Turkey’s border, where fields of garlic and brush form the only dry-land border between Greece and Turkey.

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Greek and EU border officials describe an explosion of such illegal immigrants, who they say are taking advantage of a cheap, safe expressway to Europe’s borderless Schengen area, of which Greece is member. Here, the Schengen area abuts another open-travel zone, the informal visa-free zone developing in the East, around Turkey.

“Everyone gets to Istanbul by plane, flying on cheap tickets from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and so on. Then it’s a three-hour car ride to Edirne [a Turkish city on the border] and a short walk to Greece,” said Mr. Salamagkas [Georgios Salamagkas, chief of police for the Orestiada district]. That makes fees to human traffickers lower, too, as little as €200 ($260) in some cases, compared with the thousands required to travel by dangerous sea routes, he said.

According to Frontex, the EU border-support agency that deployed 175 people to help protect the frontier here, Greece now accounts for 90% of all detections of illegal crossings into the EU. Estimates of the number of immigrants now living in Greece range from 500,000 to two million, huge figures for a nation of 11 million that is more used to sending emigrants abroad.

In Greece, feelings are running high. To stop the flow of immigrants, Greece is planning to build a fence across the fields. Anti-immigrant protesters clashed with police in riots over the weekend. The flood of immigrants is an unwelcome, if small strain on public finances at a time when the country is in deep recession and slashing budgets.

In recent years, Turkey has signed visa-free travel agreements with Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Jordan, among others. Citizens of many other countries, including Iraq, can buy visas at the border. {snip}

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Greek police estimate more than a quarter of its 54,000-strong force–and roughly the same amount of its €200 million annual police budget–is consumed with combating illegal immigration, cutting forces available to fight rising recession-era crime levels.

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