Greece has built a massive, concrete-filled fence on the already militarised border with Turkey in order to keep refugees massing at the border at bay and prevent them from crossing Europe’s busiest frontier, but it won’t stop many refugees from crossing into the European Union, a human smuggler told VICE World News.
Last year Greece announced the project – a 40 kilometre (25 mile) stretch of fence standing at 5 metres tall – as a way to control the overland refugee flows from Turkey after nearly two million people crossed the border since 2015 as part of a mass escape by refugees from war zones throughout the region. The EU is supporting the border fortification, which also includes additional personnel, cameras, drones and officers from FRONTEX, the EU border agency.
The Taliban’s lightening-quick takeover of Afghanistan has caused people to flee from persecution, meaning that there is likely to be an influx of refugees to Europe. Earlier this month, Greek migration minister Notis Mitarachi, said, “Our country will not be a gateway to Europe for illegal Afghan migrants.”
The presence of more than 60,000 refugees in Greece awaiting asylum decisions has been a major political issue for the right-wing Greek government after promises to rid the land of the refugees and credible accusations of police illegally pushing boats filled with refugees back into Turkish waters.
At least 20,000 people – mostly Afghans, Syrians and Iraqis fleeing wars – have arrived on Greece’s shores by boat or illegal border crossing in search of asylum in the last two years. While the numbers remain lower than during the 2015 crisis in southern Europe, where more than 1.5 million refugees from the war-torn Middle East and Central Asia passed through Greece from Turkey seeking refuge in the EU, the current numbers are a significant concern in Greek politics.
With more than 10,000 people stuck in terrible conditions in camps throughout Greece, the majority of migrants skip the cheaper but very dangerous boats from Turkey and instead pay human smugglers to get them over the frontier.
“The price to cross from Turkey into Greece is 1,500 euros,” said Shamali, an Afghan refugee who has been in Greece and Turkey since 2015, frequently working for human smugglers. Shamali gave only one name and VICE World News agreed not to share anymore information of Shamali’s background for security reasons.
“If you get to Turkey, you wait in Istanbul and pay the money,” he said of the trip he’s done more than a dozen times, escorting people across the Turkish-Greek or Turkish Bulgarian borders. “Then you wait for them to call you and tell you to get on a bus to the border area, it will be all arranged, you will walk all night but the next day you will be in [the Greek city of] Thessaloniki.”
By paying the money to the smugglers. Shamali said the refugees are ensuring that they make it into the EU without being detained or put into a camp. “Most people cannot afford the fake papers [to show EU residency] but they can afford this much to get into Europe,” he said. “You are illegal and cannot work and must still keep moving to Italy or Germany and hope you do not get arrested.”
No wall or fence can stop this sort of smuggling, according to Shamali, because the price includes bribes to top security officials on either side of the border, who as part of their fee ensure the smugglers can get their charges through.
“The police get paid by the big men to hold the gates open if they need to,” said Shamali. “The police wave at us because they know we paid to cross, there’s no risk and that’s why people pay.”
“About 10,000 euros, that’s the safest amount to spend [moving from Afghanistan to Europe],” he said. “That will buy good people to get you across Iran without stealing or killing you and then across Turkey with professionals. It’s if you don’t have too much money and can’t pay, then you have to climb fences or take the [much cheaper] boat. This is dangerous. You can die or end up in a camp.”