Illegal Immigration: Shutting the Back Door to Fortress Europe

By Manfred Ertel and Walter Mayr

Greece wants to erect a fence on its border with Turkey to stop illegal immigrants from crossing into the EU. But the ruthless people traffickers in Turkey will do whatever it takes to get those dreaming of a better life into Europe -- no matter what the danger to the immigrants.

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Manfred Ertel/DER SPIEGEL

When the bus for Athens pulled away, the area outside the Filakio detention camp looked like it had been the scene of a mass panic. Sandals, sweaters and backpacks were scattered all around after being jettisoned in great haste.

Just moments before, Galal Hani and the other refugees from the Greek camp had stood shivering in the mud in freezing temperatures trying to make themselves look presentable in their clean jeans, sneakers and suede jackets. Now they are on their way to a new life.

Hani, a 30-year-old Hani Moroccan, describes how he got here. He says he took a budget flight from Casablanca to Istanbul. From there, he took a bus to the northwestern Turkish city of Edirne. And, from there, he walked cross-country across the border and into Greece. Having now been released from the Filakio refugee camp, he intends to travel via Athens to Italy, where his ex-girlfriend and their child are reportedly already waiting for him. He claims he lost his ID papers while traveling. All he has now is a letter from the transit camp.

This free pass to nowhere is his official notification that he is a "deported" refugee who has 30 days to leave Greek territory. And that's precisely what Hani intends to do. But rather than following the authorities' instructions and returning to Morocco, he intends to travel to Western Europe -- as do most economic migrants who arrive in Greece.

Greece's Guantanamo

Filakio lies in northeastern Greece, close to the borders with Turkey and Bulgaria. It is currently Europe's most notorious transit camp for refugees. Filakio's seven dormitories were originally intended to house up to 372 people. But a guard reports that there are currently twice as many people at the center, adding: "Welcome to Greece's Guantanamo!"

At the base of fence made of two coils of barbed wire, a pool of stinking sewage has formed. Behind the fence, overflowing trash cans are surrounded by dozens of open plastic bags and loose bundles of clothes. Rats scurry across the courtyard. Police officers now only enter the buildings wearing medical masks, and the camp's few visitors are bombarded with complaints by its temporary inhabitants.

The camp spans an area of 1,500 square meters (16,000 square feet). There's one dormitory for women, one for minors and five for men. Each holds eight showers and eight toilets. Three times a day, food is brought into the camp. But when almost 800 refugees are crammed into it -- and, on particularly bad days, there are even more -- the conditions in Filakio become unbearable. People have to squeeze into the long rows of bunk beds, and many end up sleeping on the floor. The toilets are often blocked, and there are puddles in the corridors.

'A State of War'

Still, Filakio only drew international attention when news emerged that Greece was planning to erect a fence to seal off its border with neighboring Turkey. The fence will run along an approximately 12-kilometer (7-mile) stretch of countryside that refugees from the far corners of the world know as the gateway to the EU. Owing to a bend in the Maritsa River -- which the Turks call Meriç and the Greeks Evros -- this is the only spot where the northern border of Turkey touches Greece on dry land. From here, would-be immigrants can enter "fortress Europe" without even getting their feet wet.

Greece now intends to shut this back door. Last year, Greek authorities recorded some 27,000 illegal border crossings in this small area alone. No one knows how many people really came across, but the true figure is undoubtedly far higher. Another 12,000 people traversed the Maritsa at other, less convenient places -- whether by swimming, wading, boat or even walking across the frozen river.

At present, nine out of every 10 illegal immigrants entering the EU comes via Greece. Most of them arrive in the region that Georgios Salamangas, the police chief of the nearby city of Orestiada, is responsible for. "We're in a state of war," Salamangas says. Since controls have been tightened throughout the Mediterranean -- from Gibraltar to the Aegean -- more and more refugees are opting for the land route running east to west.

Salamangas also says he's noticed a major change since Turkey waived its visa requirements for inhabitants of North African countries. In addition to Afghans, Iraqis and Palestinians, a significant share of the refugees now come from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. "We didn't use to get them," he says.

The mustachioed Greek police chief is at pains to show that he cares about the well-being of the refugees in his region. He says he helped recover 16 bodies from the Maritsa in June, bodies of would-be illegal immigrants who had drowned in the raging river.

The Mystery Corpse

The Maritsa flows down into the Sea of Marmara. The border runs along the center -- separating Greece from Turkey, the Occident from the Orient, Euroland from hinterland.

On Jan. 5, a woman's body was pulled out of the river on the Turkish side. She had dark skin, was about 170 centimeters (5' 8") tall and wore her hair in Rasta-style dreadlocks. "Probably Somali," a doctor says. It's not the first time he's seen such victims.

The woman's body has been brought to a hospital in Edirne. Lying in the hospital's back courtyard, it appears to have been in the water for some time, and her facial features are already hard to make out. Eventually, her lifeless body is put into a white plastic bag and taken to a tiled room.

According to Frontex, the EU body responsible for external border security, more than 40 people washed up dead on the Greek side of the Maritsa in 2010. There are no comparable figures for the Turkish side, only brief reports in the daily newspapers: Eighteen bodies were found in the first few days of 2010, four dead -- presumably Palestinians -- were recovered in April, and another one washed up near the village of Elçili in September.

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