On a trip to the Evros river at the outermost edge of Europe, swissinfo.ch saw first-hand how Greece is working to stem the flow of unwanted immigrants into the European Union (EU). Frontex, the external border security agency of the EU, provides support to Greece in this immense task. Non-EU member Switzerland also takes part in Frontex operations – and not entirely for altruistic reasons.
Daniela Looser, a 27-year-old Swiss border guard, sits together with her Romanian counterparts in the Frontex office in Kipi, an official Greek border crossing with Turkey. Two kilometres to the east, across the Evros, is the Turkish border post.
At a length of 185 kilometres, the Evros forms almost the entire border between Greece and Turkey. The area is a magnet for would-be migrants to the EU.
Looser has been in Greece for three weeks. It is her first Frontex mission and her first time ever in Greece. She does not speak a word of the language. But that is not a problem, as at external EU border posts, the guards customarily speak English with one another.
Normally Looser is stationed in St Gallen in eastern Switzerland. She applied for a rotation in the Swiss Frontex pool because she wanted to familiarise herself with the outermost boundaries of the Schengen Area, which Switzerland is also part of.
Schengen is a borderless, free movement area comprising 26 European countries. These countries have abolished internal border controls while at the same time strengthening external controls with non-Schengen states.
Switzerland, Greece and Frontex share responsibilities for the Swiss border guard’s placement. Switzerland pays and employs her, while Frontex coordinates her mission and covers on-site costs. Greece is in charge of operations.
Stopping illegal entries
During her day and night shifts at the Kipi border crossing, Looser wears the blue uniform of the border guard, a Frontex-band on her right arm and a service weapon in her belt.
Among other things, her job is to check the authenticity of documents of people entering Greece, to thwart illegal immigration. “You see falsified passports and visas all the time," said Looser.
Since joining Schengen, Switzerland is in principle not allowed to check passports at its borders, except as a part of customs control. In contrast, at Schengen’s external borders it is obligatory to verify the documentation of everyone attempting to enter.
"Each and every person is very carefully checked," said Looser. Other than that, she observed, the work in Kipi is the same as in St Gallen. "All over the world people simply want to get from point A to point B."
Looser, who is also a trained gardener, is a specialist in searching vehicles. "Basically, you can hide people in any vehicle – be it a Smart car or a lorry," she said. But she won't be any more specific than that.
Not surprisingly, discretion is an absolute must in this line of work, with Frontex employees subject to strict guidelines about the disclosure of tactical information.
“We work according to the laws of the host country and are there to provide support,“ explains Looser. “No one has to tell the Greeks how to protect the border – they know what they’re doing.”
From Kipi we drive 80 kilometres north, along the wooded banks of the Evros. On the other side of the river is Turkey. From there, desperate migrants try again and again to find a boat that will ferry them across the river to European soil. They come from countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Somalia.
Countless dramas have been played out on the Evros. But today it is quiet, with hardly a border guard or a patrol dog to be seen. Perhaps they are hiding somewhere, behind the trees and hedges?
Greece has massively ramped up its patrol activities in recent years in response to the ever-mounting numbers of irregular migrants. In cooperation with Frontex, it monitors the Evros region with helicopters, night vision goggles and thermal cameras.
Two or three years ago the refugee route ran predominantly across the narrow strip of land in the north where the Evros river comes to an end and meadows and fields mark the Greek-Turkish border.
Here, hundreds of people used to illegally cross the border on a daily basis. But a 12.5-kilometre steel fence, erected at the beginning of 2013, put a stop to this. Now it is virtually impossible to cross by land from Turkey into Greece.
At the police station in the city of Orestiada we meet Panos Zevgolatakos, a policeman who is deputy head of border control for the district. He drives us through fields of grain and sunflowers. Five hundred metres from the border the military zone begins. A young soldier and her colleague stand guard, machine guns at the ready.
A lieutenant colonel escorts us through the military zone. We are allowed 15 minutes to look at and photograph the four-metre high double fence topped with rolls of barbed wire. About a metre of Greek soil lies behind this controversial “iron curtain“.
Beyond that is Turkey – and in Turkish territory photographs are forbidden. As are photographs of the lieutenant colonel.
For the Greeks, dealing with foreign visitors has become routine. "Since the fence was built we have shown about 100 groups around," said Zevgolatakos. “CNN was here, TV teams from Australia, Japan, Germany. And in April 2013 we had a visit from the Swiss minister of justice – what’s her name again? Right: Simonetta Sommaruga."
Shifting migration routes
"Ever since the border fence was built and controls beefed up along the Evros, and ever since Bulgaria also put up a border fence, the pressure on the dangerous transit route by sea has increased," explained Elias Anagnospopoulos, director of Amnesty International Greece.
Frontex and Switzerland
As a member of Schengen/Dublin, Switzerland has participated in EU border-monitoring missions since 2011. It has a pool of 40 specialists at its disposal who complete approximately four-week long missions once a year.
Among other things, Switzerland makes debriefing specialists available to Frontex. They interview migrants to obtain information on human traffickers and their routes.
In addition to border guards, documentation and vehicle specialists are sent by Switzerland to help monitor EU border areas.
In 2013, Switzerland contributed a total of 1257 operating days to Frontex. In cooperation with foreign authorities on the ground, over 1000 illegal entries, more than 400 rejections, and over 100 counterfeit identity documents were registered.
The annual Swiss contribution to Frontex amounts to CHF3.5 million ($3.9 million).
(Source: Swiss Customs Administration)
"Again and again it comes to so-called pushbacks, where refugees are pushed back into the sea or to the Turkish bank of the river by coastal and border guards – a clear violation of human rights," he said.
By way of example, Anagnospopoulos mentions an incident on January 20, 2014, when 11 Afghan and Syrian refugees, including eight children, drowned near the Greek island of Farmakonisi as the Greek coast guard was dragging the boat back to Turkish waters. The Greek authorities have denied this was a case of pushback.
We talked about pushbacks with Panos Zevgolatakos, the policeman from Oristiada, who claimed never to have heard of such cases. "We respect international and Greek laws. If I did something in violation of the law, I would go to jail," he said. He blamed gangs for the spread of negative reports about Greece.
Frontex explicitly distances itself from pushback operations, describing them as illegal. For its part, Amnesty International places the responsibility for such actions on Greek officials, not on border guards from other countries.
Nevertheless, Amnesty considers Frontex to be complicit in human rights violations, because they are the coordinator of joint operations. "We therefore call upon Frontex to suspend these operations in Greece," said Anagnospopoulos.
Anagnospopoulos further complains that far more money is allocated for border security than for the protection of refugees, also criticising the rest of the EU for “being glad that Spain, Malta, Italy and Greece take care of the border“.
“We demand a more humane asylum policy from the EU. When asylum seekers or irregular migrants come knocking on our door, we must listen to them and determine if they have a right to our protection," said Anagnospopoulos.
Good centre, bad centre
In Orestiada we take leave of Zevgolatakos and drive 15 kilometres further northwest, towards Fylakio. Outside the village is an initial reception centre for refugees who have been picked up in the Evros region. It has been there for about a year.
Christos Christakoudis, the centre coordinator, welcomes us at the gate of the fenced grounds. And there we stay, denied access. Aside from a stray dog and a couple of children playing football behind the barracks, there is not a soul in sight.
The centre has four different wings, with space for 240 refugees - men, women, and children. "Thanks to the border fence, Frontex and increased controls, the number of illegal immigrants fell sharply last year," said Christakoudis.
Frontex and Greece
Since 2008 the route from Turkey to EU countries Greece and Bulgaria has become a hotspot for illegal entries. It is mainly Afghans and Somalis, but also increasingly Syrians, who actively use this route. Turkish-based human traffickers are mainly present in Istanbul, but are also in Izmir, Edirne and Ankara.
Over 40,000 would-be migrants used this route from 2008-2009, about 40% of the total number of migrants to the EU. In 2010 over 55,000 asylum seekers and irregular migrants were registered. At that point Frontex put together its first Rapid Border Intervention Team (RABIT), sending 191 border guards to assist the Greek authorities at the border.
In 2011, 57,000 migrants were apprehended. In 2012, this figure was 37,200. In 2013, it was 24,800.
Operation Poseidon Land was carried out in Greece from March 2013 to March 2014 with the participation of 535 border guards, resulting in the apprehension of 186 human traffickers.
There is catering, a cleaning service, TV, telephone and games for the migrants at the centre. The majority of them are originally from Syria and Afghanistan. According to Christakoudis, the new arrivals are given medical and psychological evaluations and informed of their right to apply for asylum. Even translators are on site.
"After a maximum of 15 days the refugees are either brought to a reception centre somewhere in Greece or voluntarily travel back to their country of origin. Minors are handed over to the International Organization for Migration (IOM)."
Those who do not request asylum, and that is the majority (Greece is in the midst of an economic crisis and not seen as attractive), risk landing in the heavily guarded Fylakio Detention Centre next door, which has been criticised numerous times by the international media for its abject conditions.
Christakoudis seems glad he has nothing to do with the Detention Centre. "Maybe the prison is overcrowded, I don’t know, but I’m not responsible for it. Here we have 240 places and maximum 240 inmates.”
Anagnospopoulos, the Amnesty Greece director, describes the initial reception centre in Fylakio as the “Grand Hotel" of the Greek centres. The prison next door is like many other prisons in the country, yet also another story altogether: "Overflowing, no or inadequate medical care, abuse by guards, no sunlight for months on end.”
Andrea Hülsmann, director for international missions at the Swiss Border Guard (SBG), has flown to the Greek border region for 36 hours to meet and exchange ideas with Frontex officials and Greek representatives. She has no comment on the Greek asylum system or political questions.
“Networking and exchanging information are important. Likewise, it’s also important for Switzerland to have a presence here, to show up," said Hülsmann. She is impressed by Frontex’s professionalism.
"These missions are enriching for us, even if we could also use the guards back at home during this time." Not to be forgotten is that Switzerland also benefits when illegal immigration is stopped at the external Schengen borders, the gateways to Europe.
In the meantime, Looser’s four weeks at the border post Kipi in Greece are about to come to a close. Soon, the next Swiss border guard will arrive for a Frontex rotation.
"I admire the Greeks, how they deal with and integrate new ‘guest workers’ every month,“ said Looser. ”I was able to benefit greatly from this mission, and from getting to know new colleagues, a new culture and another part of Europe."
The European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders (Frontex) has been based in Warsaw since 2004. Frontex coordinates joint missions of the EU member states at its external borders. The goal is to control illegal migration, apprehend human traffickers, and obtain information on migration routes.
Their budget is € 88 million (CHF107 million). Frontex has a pool of around 1800 border guards from throughout the EU, and also from Switzerland.
Frontex coordinates the deployment of ships, helicopters, search dogs, night vision goggles and infrared cameras put at their disposal by member states.
By Gaby Ochsenbein in Thrace, Greece, swissinfo.ch
Adapted from German by Kathleen Peters