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Another Brick in the Wall

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Chloe Thanopoulou investigates the pressure on Greek borders, where immigrants attempt to illegally enter Europe – increasingly often at the price of death.

‘So why didn’t they drown you all?”,  a TV reporter asked during a press conference following the tragic shipwreck of Farmakonisi islet last week. Nine children and three women lost their lives while trying to cross the Greek – Turkish borders on a fishing boat.

When the boat capsized, survivors swam to the Greek coastguard vessel, but did not get life-jackets or ropes. “I saw one person being hit by a crew member so they couldn’t get on board and fell back into the water”, said a survivor that has lost his wife and four children.

The 16 survivors told the UN Refugee Agency that the coastguard towed their boat with high speed back to Turkey, after its engine failed. However the coastguard denied it was towing the boat to Turkey, but rather towards Farmakonisi islet, 1.5 nautical miles away. Strong winds and waves made the transfer of migrants to the coastguard boat impossible and towing was said to be the only option.

A wall of protection?

The event did not come as a surprise. A November report of ProAsyl, a German N.G.O., accused Greece of having pushed back approximately 2.000 people to Turkey from Greek waters and claimed that officers of the Greek police and coastguard had abused migrants physically and psychologically. Also a great number of international and European organizations have expressed their concerns about the situation in the Aegean Sea.

But let’s take a step back to look at the bigger picture. Pressure from other EU countries and threats of expelling Greece from the Schengen Treaty if the problem of illegal immigration was not solved, has led to the construction of a 10 km long wall in Evros, which has made entering Greece practically impossible. The sea passage cannot be blocked as efficiently and is therefore used as the main entrance route. This is much more dangerous.

As Giorgos Tsarbopoulos, the Head of the Office at the UN High Commission for Refugees in Greece, said, “the policy of guarding the borders is a demand of the European Union towards Greece. It was the threats of our European partners that led to the building of the wall on the northern borders with Turkey. What Europe has to think about, however, is how trying to prevent border-crossing through sea will not create more fatalities.”

Pressure on Greek borders
Unfortunately, the increased numbers of deaths and human rights violations at the borders has not bothered European policy makers. The fact that 50.000 people where kept out of the borders last year because of the wall, was presented as a great success. It seems like keeping people out of the fortress of Europe is the main issue at stake. Since 2013 more than 100 million euro out of the union’s budget was spent on guarding the Greek- Turkish borders.

Indeed, the money was effectively spent; if one regards the ratings. In 2013 there was a 56,9% drop of immigrants entering Greece. However in Bulgaria there was an illegal immigration increase of 500%, and to solve that problem, they too are building a wall.

Are walls and push-backs a viable option for the borderless EU that is so proud of its human rights system? Migration is a natural phenomenon. As Marilena Koppa, a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) claims: “Migration comes like the rain, whether we want it or we don’t.” And Nikos Chrysogelos, another MEP, continues by saying that “people who are desperate and whose lives have been threatened; people who search for and dream of a better life, will not stop chasing for a better future because of borders.”

Instead of building walls and causing the drowning of thousands of people, we should therefore focus on creating humanitarian corridors; on creating an effective process which does not put too much weight on weak southern European countries.

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