In crisis, Greece rounds up immigrants
NEA VYSSA, Greece — Border police jeeps hurtle along hot, dusty tracks past potato fields on their way to the river that marks the Greek-Turkish border. Sirens blaring, the convoys have been repelling wave after wave of migrants.
Greece’s remote Evros region has turned into Europe’s main battleground against illegal immigration. More than two-thirds of people making the clandestine journey into the European Union pass through here from neighboring Turkey.
Greece launched an aggressive campaign this month to try to seal its 130-mile northeastern border as it faces a debilitating financial crisis that has caused a swell in joblessness and a surge in racist attacks against immigrants with dark skin.
The police operation has brought nearly 2,000 additional border guards to the Turkish frontier previously manned by about 500 officers.
They fanned out with dogs, night-vision equipment and flat-bottomed boats for 24-hour patrols of the Evros River that forms a natural border. At least 21 people have drowned or died of exposure crossing the river this year, while several have been listed as missing.
In Athens, the operation is being bolstered by mass roundups of suspected illegal immigrants. They are seen lined up on the streets of the capital every day, many in handcuffs, waiting to be put in detention until they can be deported.
In the first week of the crackdown in early August, police said they apprehended nearly 7,000 people for identification checks. Nearly 1,700 were slated for deportation.
Gaming the system
Unaware of the immigration clampdown, he said he is looking for police so he can turn himself in. It’s a well-worn ploy: Migrants have actively tried to get themselves taken to detention centers near Athens, assuming they will be released because of overcrowding and allowed to blend into the chaotic capital.
“I’ve come here to work,” Anwar, who declined to give his full name because of his illegal status, said moments after crossing the border.
“I know what will happen to me: They might keep me in detention for around three months, but then they’ll let me out and I’ll go to Athens.”
Now, however, authorities are determined to deport swiftly any illegal migrants they round up.
In a recent pre-dawn operation, authorities using thermal-imaging cameras spotted a group of about 60 people on the Turkish side of the Evros River.
Officers used spotlights, sirens and loud speakers to deter them from crossing, although 15 still made it over to a river islet in a no-man’s land and were arrested.