Brussels deploys new force in attempt to curb entry of hundreds of illegal migrants a day via large unmonitored area
Ian Traynor in Brussels and Helena Smith in Samos
guardian.co.uk, Monday 25 October 2010 19.01 BST
A new force of armed European guards is to be dispatched to Greece to patrol the country’s border with Turkey in an attempt to stem steeply increasing illegal immigration into Europe.
The deployment of the Rapid Intervention Border Teams, assembled from the border guard forces of other European countries, will be the first time Brussels has deployed multinational armed units on the EU’s external land border.
The teams are to arrive in Greece within days, the European commission announced today , although the precise numbers and makeup are yet to be decided.
A commission official said: “This is a new front. The teams are armed, but they can only use their arms in self-defence.”
Struggling to cope with the hundreds of migrants who are entering Greece every day through an inhospitable, unmonitored stretch of the country’s border with Turkey near the town of Edirne, Athens appealed to Brussels for help at the weekend.
“The flows of people crossing the border irregularly have reached alarming proportions,” said Cecilia Malmström, commissioner for home affairs. “Greece is manifestly not able to face this situation alone.”
Some eight out of 10 migrants entering Europe this year have arrived in Greece via Turkey, according to Brussels. Some are illegal economic migrants, at the mercy of gangs of human traffickers; many are Iraqi and Afghan asylum seekers, whose treatment by the Greek authorities the United Nations and the EU regard as indefensible.
“It is an appalling situation,” said the official. “The Greeks currently can’t handle it. It’s a small country facing huge pressure.”
The numbers entering Greece this year have almost quadrupled, to around 34,000 from around 9,000 last year.
For Afghans such as 15-year-old Ahmad Fahim and Fahimullah, 16, the route into Europe via Greece is a common one.
The boys, both from the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, travelled by bus to the Afghan-Iranian border, then walked across Iran guided by traffickers, who led them into Turkey. From there, they they made their way to the coast opposite the Greek island of Mytilene.
“It took four months and cost $1,500 [£953] for the smugglers,” said Ahmad. “Our feet really ached. BUt all the time I thought of England, where my relatives live. The conditions in Greece are terrible. At the police station, we were kept, 20 of us, in a filthy cell. And before they let us go, they beat Fahimullah because he said he wasn’t feeling well.”
Jooma Jafari, 27, another Afghan who made his way into Greece, in the hope of reaching Italy, said: “I want a better life, and Greece is the easiest way to get into Europe. This is the third time I will try to get to England. It is dangerous, and in Greece they treat you as if you are not human.”
Matthew, aged 22, from Congo, said: “My father taught me to pray. When I made the journey here, I prayed a lot and thanked my father many times. The Greek coastguard destroyed our boat when we tried to cross and deliberately pushed us back to Turkey. There was a storm and none of us could swim. We nearly died.”
According to the UN, nine out of 10 illegal migrant arrests in Europe this year have taken place in Greece.
Manfred Nowak, the UN’s human rights rapporteur, recently visited Athens and found asylum seekers jailed in “inhuman and degrading” conditions.
“Some of the facilities are so overcrowded, dark and filthy that it was very difficult for us to be there with the detainees. We had to go out because we didn’t have enough air to breathe,” he said last week.
Brussels is also investigating alleged Greek breaches of European asylum law.
Over the past year, Brussels and EU governments have moved to close down the Mediterranean migration and trafficking routes into Spain, Italy, and Malta through sea patrols. They have also, controversially, struck deals with Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya to take the migrants back. Libya had been a main transit route for people coming from Africa and the Middle East.
The closure of these routes has left Greece exposed, with thousands reaching there via Turkey from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Africa.
The Greek police minister, Christos Papoutsis, said at the weekend: “A mass influx is noted daily on the Greek land border with Turkey by third-country nationals attempting to illegally enter the country with the aim of accessing other EU countries.”
Some 25 Iranian asylum seekers are said to be on hunger strike in Greece, some with their mouths sewn, in protest at their treatment and the Greek refusal to consider asylum requests.
A stretch of over seven miles of the EU’s outer border near the Greek town of Orestiada is said to be completely open and unguarded. Migrants are entering at a rate of several hundred a day, although the terrain is difficult.
The crisis is being worsened by other EU countries sending arrested illegal migrants back to Greece under rules stipulating that they may be returned to the country of EU entry.
EU governments are also seeking to negotiate a return pact with Turkey, and Ankara is seeking to leverage the deal into concessions on EU visas for Turks.