It was the easiest arrest imaginable. Three Somalis trudged along a road, a police van pulled up, two officers opened the door and the trio climbed in. Approached by The Times moments earlier, their first question had been: “Where can we find the police?”
This is the front line in the European Union’s battle against illegal migration: an eight-mile stretch of Greece’s border with Turkey near the village of Nea Vyssa.
Between January and September 31,400 people were caught illegally entering Greece across its border with Turkey. The surge is adding to an humanitarian crisis in the debt-laden country that is responsible for about 90 per cent of all detected illegal entries into the EU.
Last month Athens called on Brussels to help and on November 2 an emergency force from Frontex, the EU’s border agency, descended on the frontier. It was the first time that the force, which was set up in 2007, has been used. The 175-strong force of Rapid Border Intervention Teams, drawn from various European countries, are equipped with night vision gear, sniffer dogs and helicopters.
One handicap renders much of this kit useless. The border patrols cannot turn back a single migrant.
“When they arrive they say, ‘Where are the police’ because they know it’s impossible for us to send them back,” said Alexandros Zavos, the former head of the Greek Hellenic Migration Policy Institute. “They have destroyed their documents. Many lie about their country of origin and the Turkish Government doesn’t accept them.”
The surge in migration came after other popular routes into the EU via the Canary Islands and the Mediterranean were all but closed after agreements last year between Spain, Italy, Morocco and Libya. Increased EU patrols along the Greek-Turkish sea border have also shifted migration on to the land border.
The only change since the Frontex teams arrived, according to an elderly man in a café on the main street in Nea Vyssa, is that migrants from Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries no longer have to wait to be picked up.
“It doesn’t make any difference,” he said. “Every day the people are coming. Before there were 150 at the station but now they’re just taken to detention.”
After two or three days most are released and ordered to leave the country legally within 30 days. However, the order is unenforceable because a readmission agreement between Greece and Turkey allows for the return of only 1,000 migrants a year, about 2 per cent of the total.
One group of migrants newly released from detention and waiting in Orestiada for a bus to Athens laughed at the suggestion of leaving Europe. “We’ve walked two months to come to Europe and now we’d think to go back. How is this possible?” said Aziz, a 21-year-old Afghan.
With its asylum application system overloaded and overcrowded detention centres condemned by the UN last month, Greece is pressuring Ankara for an agreement that will allow more migrants to be sent back to Turkey. On Friday last week Cecilia Malmström, the European Home Affairs commissioner, said that a deal was close.
Christos Papoutsis, the Home Affairs Minister, said that his Government was seeking a review of the Dublin II agreement, which requires any illegal migrant in the EU to be returned to the member state that he or she first entered. After a ten-day tour of the country’s detention centres last month, the UN’s special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, called on the EU to stop sending asylum seekers back to Greece.
“Greece should not carry the burden of receiving the vast majority of all migrants entering the EU,” he said. “This is a truly European problem which needs a joint European solution.”
A Frontex spokesman said that some migrants could be returned to their home countries. Most however, live in a state of limbo within Greece, where they are unable to find work and are often forced to survive on the streets.
“All of Greece is a big detention centre, we can’t get out,” said Majid, an Afghan who has been living in Alexandroúpolis for the past nine months.
Majid fled to Europe from Quetta in Pakistan, and said that his father had been killed by the Mujahidin. “I’ve come here as a representative of my family, I want to help them get education and provide for them,” he said. “But to be honest now I’m confused, I don’t know what to do.”