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Amid worries, Greece gets Turkey’s backing on border fence plan

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Turkey has indicated consent to Greek plans to fence part of its border, with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan voicing understanding of gravity of the illegal immigration problem that Athens has been facing. Yet, the plan continues to spark the concern of humanitarian agencies, who say the fence could prevent asylum seekers from reaching safety.

Greece said last week it planned a fence along its border with Turkey in the Evros (Meriç in Turkish) region to prevent a wave of immigrants flowing into the debt-choked country. Nine out of 10 illegal immigrants use Greece as their springboard into the European Union. “We give great importance to working together with Turkey on the issue of illegal immigration,” visiting Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou said in translated remarks at a joint news conference with Erdoğan which was held on Friday in the eastern Turkish city of Erzurum.

Athens has long complained that Ankara’s refusal to take back immigrants who have crossed from its territory encourages would-be migrants to use that route. Erdoğan played down the significance of the fence, which will cover only 12.5 kilometer of a 206-kilometer-long border. “This is not a measure taken against Turkey or Greece,” Erdoğan said. “It’s wrong to see this is as a wall, it’s just a barrier. We fully trust each other on this,” he said, while underlining that his understanding of the problem had changed after Papandreou told him there were 1 million illegal immigrants in Greece.

However, in Geneva the UN refugee agency on Friday reiterated concern over Greek plans, saying the fence could lead illegal migrants, including people in need of international protection, to resort to even riskier routes with the help of unscrupulous human traffickers. “While every state has the right to control its borders, it is clear that among the many people crossing Turkey toward the European Union, there are a significant number who are fleeing violence and persecution,” Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told a news briefing.

“Building fences, we believe, rarely solves the underlying problem of migratory pressures,” she stressed. Greece must establish border control mechanisms that provide concrete guarantees to people seeking international protection, according to UNHCR. Asylum seekers from Afghanistan form the biggest group entering Greece, followed by those from Somalia, Iraq and Eritrea.

Jean-Philippe Chauzy of the International Organization for Migration echoed the concerns. “What we’ve seen in all parts of the world is when a wall is being built to seal a border, smuggling networks basically take migrants and asylum-seekers on increasingly dangerous routes. Obviously there is a human cost.”

Greece’s land border with non-EU Turkey mostly runs along a river. The fence will be built in the area where most migrants arrive, officials say. “That route is already dangerous. In fact there are large numbers of migrants and people seeking asylum, potentially, who are drowning en route at the hands of notorious smugglers. So we’re concerned that this could get even worse,” Fleming said.

The problem is compounded by Greece’s asylum system, which the UNHCR qualifies as “dysfunctional.” Greece is expected to pass a new law this week creating an independent authority examining asylum requests and an independent service to oversee detention centers.


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