In “Still A Great Place to Visit,” I observed that this year’s resurgence in Greece’s tourism business is “a silver lining in an ominous cloud of unrest and violence” across the Middle East. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, the warmly welcomed tourists we saw in museums, at tavernas, and on the beaches are not the only visitors choosing Greece in droves these days.
Greece is grappling with an immense “illegal immigrant” problem. During our visit in September, Greeks expressed fear that U.S. intervention in Syria could cause a further rise in the flood of illegals into Greece. The English language press reported that, in anticipation of continued chaos in Syria and surrounding countries, the Greek government “aims to bolster Greece’s land and sea borders to deal with a likely surge in refugees from Syria.” Months earlier Greece’s Public Order Minister, Nikolaos Dendias, had proclaimed that Greece must “fortify the Aegean Sea” in anticipation that troubles in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere would prompt a migration wave across Iraq and Jordan, thence through Turkey into Greece.
Writing in Aeon Magazine, Helena Drysdale characterized the Greek border as Europe’s “most porous.” In 2010, 90 percent of all apprehensions for illegal entry into the European Union occurred in Greece. Although estimates vary considerably, it is generally thought that there are now somewhere between 650,000 and 1 million illegals in Greece. That’s about 6 to 10 percent of Greece’s population of 10.8 million. Arizona and Texas, by comparison, each have illegal alien populations in the 6 to 7 percent range.
For some time, Greece has accommodated legal Albanian immigrants, who enter across their country’s border in the northwest of Greece. Although the decades-long influx of Albanians has not been without its problems, the Albanian immigrants have been predominantly Orthodox Christians, most of them ethnically Greek. They have fled a Muslim-dominated, former communist dictatorship for better economic prospects and greater cultural compatibility in Greece. On the island of Skopelos, we have observed first hand that many Albanians have assimilated and are now productive Greek citizens.
The greater immigration concern for Greece today lies on what I call the “eastern front” — its land and sea borders with Turkey. In the northeast of Greece, the Evros River comprises most of the land border with Turkey, much as the Rio Grande forms the boundary between Texas and Mexico. The police chief of the Evros region has said that illegal immigration into Greece is “out of control,” that the country is being “swamped by an increasing tide” of illegal entry. Arrests of “migrants” crossing the Evros increased sixfold from 2009 to 2011.
Along the Evros, after 2010, some modest improvement resulted from the deployment of a pan-European force, Frontex. Still more effective was the very recent construction by Greece of a razor wire fence along the 12.5-kilometer land border in an area where the Evros River kinks into Turkey. The fence — a “Greek project” built with the EU “not paying one cent” — has been heavily criticized by international “immigration rights” activists, who claim that it “will only drive migrants towards the dangerous river route.” The activists apparently did not entertain the possibility that a fence might actually deter illegal entry; they do not share the view of most Greeks that a country has the right to secure its own borders.
The land border with Turkey in the Evros region is less challenging for Greece than the sea crossings from the Turkish coast to nearby Greek islands (Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Rhodes, and others are within sight from the shores of Turkey). The Greek coast guard cannot effectively police, much less blockade, large swaths of the Aegean. Moreover, on those occasions when Greek naval forces turn back boatloads of illegals bound for the islands, they are accused of unlawful “push backs” — just as their counterparts on the mainland face similar allegations when blocking entry across the Evros or the land border in the northeast.
These border security challenges are exacerbated because Turkey does virtually nothing to stem the flow of illegals from its territory into Greece. For one thing, Turkey has no visa requirements for citizens of Muslim countries, and border controls from Central Asia across Turkey to the Aegean are reported to be “either lax or non-existent.” Thus there is little control over entry of undocumented people into Turkey, where a robust illegal “travel” industry, tolerated by the government, assists such “migrants” across Turkish soil and then into Greece. Neither Turkey nor other Muslim countries of origin (e.g., Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, et al.) cooperates with efforts to return illegals to their homelands.
The European Union compounds the difficulties. A major incentive for illegal entry into Greece is the EU’s lack of internal border controls. Thus, many illegals enter Greece intending to travel on to other European countries with no border checkpoints to deter them (much as illegals entering Arizona can then travel freely to other states). Worse yet for Greece, under Europe’s “Dublin II” regulation illegals apprehended elsewhere in Europe are not returned to their homelands, but rather to the country of entry into the EU. So, back they go to Greece, which has become what some call a “parking lot” for illegals.
Notwithstanding the current coalition government’s enforcement campaign, there are ghettoes in most Greek cities populated by illegal immigrants. Many of these immigrants are uninterested in assimilation. Perhaps that is no small wonder, inasmuch as Turkey’s prime minister Recep Erdogan recently demanded that European countries provide children of Turkish immigrants public education in their native language! (Mexico has provided pamphlets advising its citizens on application for public benefits as illegals in the U.S.; and, in Arizona, “civil rights” activists have attacked as discriminatory a state requirement that English teachers actually speak fluent English.) In Greece, suffice it to say that illegal immigrants from the eastern front pose the same sorts of security and social challenges now faced by authorities in Western Europe and the United Kingdom (and assorted U.S. urban areas with large unassimilated Muslim populations).
On top of the cultural identity issues, which are correctly perceived as very important by the Greeks, the surfeit of illegals puts enormous strain on government-funded health care, educational, and social services institutions. Participation by illegals in Greece’s large cash economy not only diverts income from Greeks seeking employment, but also deprives the government of tax revenues it might realize if the demand for labor was filled via lawful hiring. (Ironically, while in Greece we read that in Los Angeles County alone, $650 million in welfare benefits will be distributed to illegal aliens in 2013, and the total cost of illegals to that county’s taxpayers will exceed $ 1.6 billion for the year, not including education costs!)
Illegals in Greece also have a staggering impact on law enforcement and the criminal justice system. According to official statistics, “immigrants are responsible for about half of the criminal activity in Greece,” and well over 50% of the country’s prison population is foreign. Similarly, in the United States, alarming increases in criminal activity by illegals have been a central consideration in various state attempts to address immigration law violations.
Unlike the United States, Greece does not have a long and largely happy history with waves of immigrants who gladly assimilated and became loyal and productive members of society. At the dawn of its history Greece suffered repeated but unsuccessful Persian invasions. In more recent centuries, the country endured conquest and roughly 400 years of occupation under Ottoman overlords who persecuted Christians, destroyed ancient temples, and converted churches into mosques. Then, less than a century after achieving its independence in 1830, Greece accommodated a massive influx of ethnic Greeks fleeing to their historic homeland to escape a brutal genocide in Turkey. Against this background, Greece is understandably wary of the uninvited even as it welcomes immigrants who willingly integrate into the country’s culture.
Current experience reconfirms for Greeks the importance of border security, law enforcement, and common culture to the integrity of their country. Yet the bureaucrats in Brussels do not have the same sense of urgency about these issues that one detects when talking with Greeks, in Greece. And activists urging greater protections and entitlements for illegal aliens seem to care little about preservation of national identity.
Here in the United States, people in Arizona share the Greeks’ sense that border security matters. Well they should, living in a state where soldiers of Mexican drug cartels — many armed with assault weapons courtesy of our Attorney General’s lawless “Fast and Furious” operation — roam freely. Farmers are fearful, entry by illegals classified as “other than Mexican” is at an all-time high, and border control agents have openly declared they have “no confidence” in Washington’s leadership on immigration enforcement. Indeed, as Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions noted just last week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers have sued the Homeland Security secretary “over the non-enforcement directives they have received,” claiming that enforcement has “collapsed” amid “the open refusal of DHS political appointees to impartially execute their law enforcement mission.”
Regarding illegal immigration, we in the United States and our Greek friends have common concerns that deserve careful consideration. Greeks we know seem determined that their country should control its borders and preserve its national identity. Neither country should enact sweeping “reforms” proffered by activists when border security and enforcement of existing immigration laws should be the first orders of business.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons