The Greek government has completed the reinforcement of its land border with Turkey in anticipation of a possible wave of Afghan refugees after the Taliban takeover. The Greek authorities want to avoid a refugee crisis like those experienced in 2015, when nearly a million refugees – mostly Syrians – entered the country, and in 2020, when the Turkish executive gave free rein to the refugees who were in its territory to pressure the European Union to renegotiate the terms and funding of the 2016 anti-immigration agreement.
“Our borders will remain secure and inviolable,” Citizen Protection Minister Mikhalis Jrisojoidis said during a visit to the region on Friday. “The crisis in Afghanistan has created new situations in the geopolitical sphere and, at the same time, new opportunities for migration flows. As a European country, we participate in the institutions of the European Union, where a series of decisions are taken. But, as a state, we cannot passively wait for its eventual impact.
Along the border marked by the Evros River, an integrated electronic surveillance system has been installed, including new turrets, thermal cameras and a hot-air airship. In addition, after 10 months of work, a new 5-meter-high fence has been completed for 27 kilometers around the town of Feres, south of the Greek-Turkish border. It is an area whose boundary does not coincide exactly with the river and which penetrates both Greece and Turkey. In the same way, the fence that had existed since 2012 to the north of the border was reinforced, around the town of Orestiada, where the territorial border does not cross the river either, but by land and which had been considerably damaged during the refugee crisis last year.
The fence built in 2012 was highly controversial, as human rights organizations argued that its result would divert the migration route south, across the Aegean Sea, which would be much more dangerous, as it finally happened. The European Union – amid financial bailouts and austerity measures – assured that it would not put a euro towards its construction and harshly criticized the Greek government for erecting the fence. Instead, after the 2015 refugee crisis, community authorities endorsed Athens’ efforts to fortify its border with Turkey, turning a blind eye to repeated hot returns or the use of live ammunition against the refugees.
The migration issue has soured relations between Turkey and Greece, although in this case the two countries seem willing to cooperate. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis held a half-hour phone conversation on Friday in which both agreed that a possible arrival of Afghan refugees would pose “a serious challenge” for both countries and have agreed to demand the help of the European authorities from the countries bordering Afghanistan to keep them within their borders.
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“We must remind our European friends of this fact: Europe, which has become a pole of attraction for millions of people, cannot stay away from the problem of refugees by fortifying its borders”, warned the Turkish leader in appearance hours after conversation with Mitsotakis: “Turkey has no duty, responsibility or obligation to become the repository of refugees from Europe.”
In fact, Ankara also strengthened its border with Iran by sending more troops and building a cement wall. According to sources on site, this has resulted in a somewhat reduced arrival of refugees and migrants who have continuously used this mountainous border to access Turkey as a first stop before heading towards European Union territory.
According to UNHCR data, in 2021 less than 5,000 people arrived irregularly in Greek territory from Turkey, 60% through the Evros River border and the rest through the Aegean Sea. Among them, nearly half were Afghans. The Turkish security forces have, for their part, arrested 83,000 people in an irregular situation this year (both at the borders and inside its territory), including just over 35,000 Afghans. These detainees are sent to treatment centers for later deportation.
This week, UNHCR spokeswoman Shabia Mantoo warned states that they “have a legal and moral responsibility” to allow fleeing Afghans to “seek safety”, recalling that international treaties prohibit their return to Afghanistan in case they might suffer the consequences. Since the beginning of the year, more than half a million Afghans have been displaced by the conflict between the Taliban and the country’s already toppled government, although the majority have remained inside Afghanistan, mainly in Kabul.
However, the surrounding countries are preparing and, for example, Iran has set up refugee camps in neighboring provinces of Afghanistan where it plans to hold them and prevent them from moving to the rest of the territory.
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