It is August 2014 and the border police at Evros state their reasons to be proud. They have successfully deterred “illegal crossings” at the border between Greece and Turkey, which has been a migration frontier for decades.
The 8 mile (12.5km) fence and a government-led sweep of illegal migrants that started on August 2, 2013, effectively thwarted a majority of crossings. According to police records, between August 2013 and January 2014, 1,710 people were arrested at the Evros border, compared to 35,258 in the previous six-month period.
From January to April 2014, the arrivals at Evros were only 441, a manageable number compared to the months prior to the fence, when an average of 400 people would cross over every day.
“Just before August 2013, we had arrested 6,000 people here and after erecting the fence it fell to 45 by next January,” explained the chief of border patrol.
Fast forward to early 2016 and arrivals in Greece by sea have skyrocketed despite the harsh winter weather.
What the police at Evros failed to mention two years ago is that the land fortification had already brought about glaring collateral damage. During the same period in 2014, the number of arrivals by sea in Greece increased by a startling 214 percent compared to the previous year.
The Evros fence was one of the first security barriers to attract media headlines. The construction piqued the curiosity of Balkan neighbors, but also the ire of humanitarian organizations. The 6.5 mile (10.4km) long strip of pastoral land between Greek and Turkish villages had been the most popular way for migrants and asylum seekers from Africa and Asia and more recently the Middle East, following the “Arab Spring” uprisings in 2011, to enter Europe. While the European Commission advised against the construction, the Greek government, alarmed by a surge in the number of arrivals, unilaterally erected the fence. The closure would have a significant impact on the region. The number of arrivals by sea from Turkey would increase exponentially and the Balkan route would open up, causing a ripple effect from Bulgaria to Slovenia and farther into Western Europe.
Greece was not the first country to erect a security barrier as a means of keeping out irregular migration, nor the last. From the U.K. in the north to Macedonia in the southeast, the list of barriers has been growing.
Meanwhile, humanitarian organizations such as Doctors without Borders (Medécins sans Frontières – MSF) have issued several reports reiterating that barriers and closures have not stopped movement. They have simply rerouted people, often through riskier means and with reduced humanitarian protection.
MSF has called upon European governments to “dismantle obstacle course[s] and provide assistance and safe, legal passage to refugees and migrants fleeing desperate conditions” ahead of another peak of arrivals expected over the summer months this year.
This week, as Greece begins to deport people en masse to Turkey under the current E.U.–Turkey deal, accusations against Turkish border officials of turning away Syrians fleeing conflict are mounting. Meanwhile, reports of increased arrivals through the central and western Mediterranean routes are simultaneously resurfacing.
The Italian coastguard said it rescued 1,482 migrants off the Libyan coast in just two days on March 27–28 this year. Migrant Report, a nonprofit organization that documents the movement of people between Africa and Europe, claims a 300 percent increase in arrivals in the central Mediterranean over March, compared to last year.
According to the organization, the recent spike in arrivals in Italy is consistent with its “research with various sources within migrant communities and smuggling networks in the Tripolitania area [the historic name of the region that included Tripoli and a vast northwestern portion of Libya] over the past two months.”
Meanwhile, UNHCR reported an increase in the number of Syrian refugees registering in Morocco, a majority of whom will likely aim to reach Europe through Spain. While Spain’s Melilla border fence with Morocco, which comprises three parallel razor-wire fences, has shielded the country from a large number of arrivals, Spanish government officials are predicting increased smuggling networks and arrivals over the coming months, especially with the sealing of the Eastern Mediterranean route through the E.U.–Turkey deal.
Providing legal migration pathways for asylum seekers before they enter the E.U. is a much-needed means of significantly reducing irregular crossings and curbing the smuggling trade, according to advocacy groups such as Human Rights Watch and U.N. agencies.
While providing an overview of Fortress Europe and Beyond, we will report on conditions and developments at the different borders, starting with photo essays from Calais, where French police recently evicted thousands of asylum seekers, and Idomeni, where 11,000 people remain stranded due to Macedonia closing its border with Greece.
Alongside narratives that explore the humanitarian plight of people on the move, we will present alternatives to the current measures through experts, policymakers, researchers and practitioners.
Top image: A migrant child looks out behind a wire fence of a refugee camp in the western Athens’ suburb of Schisto, Monday, April 4, 2016. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)