Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

A Steel Fence for Europe’s External Borders

Author(s)

Angeliki Dimitriadi
Head of the Migration Policy Unit, ENA Institute for Alternative Policies

Posted

Time to read

6 Minutes

Guest post by Angeliki Dimitriadi, Head of the Migration Policy Unit, ENA Institute for Alternative Policies. She is a political scientist working on irregular migration and asylum, and the interplay between migratory movement and policies of deterrence and protection.

a steel fence
Source: Unsplash, Marcus Spiske

On March 28, 2023, Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced that national elections would be held on May 21st.  In the days since, the political debate has shifted to the issue of irregular migration and border security, and particularly the land border fence between Greece and Turkey in the region of Evros. Shortly after announcing elections, on April 1st, a 40min event with representatives from the Hellenic Police, the Minsters of Migration and Asylum and Citizens Protection and the Prime Minister took place ahead of the signing of the extension contract for the fence at the Greek-Turkish land border.  With the latter serving as a backdrop, the extension that had already been announced a year earlier transformed into political theatre.

From the US-Mexico fence, to Hungary, Poland, and Greece to name a few, border walls and fences persist and, in most cases, are designed specifically with the aim of deterring unauthorized entry. Eleven EU member states have built walls and fences at their borders for the explicit purpose of deterring irregular migration. Amidst the expansion of globalization, and growth of technology there is something anachronistic in the proliferation of border walls. Tangible, rather than abstract, this is perhaps also what renders them attractive to policy makers.

The history of the Greek fence

Running for 500 kilometers, the Evros River is a natural border that separates Greece from Turkey. One of the most heavily militarized borders of Europe, the Greek-Turkish land border in the last two decades has born witness to hundreds of thousands of migrants seeking to enter the European Union.

The Greek fence has always been about immigration and directly linked with the securitisation of migration since the early 2000s. The idea to construct a physical barrier was proposed and realised in 2011, inspired by the US-Mexico border. The fence was a response to the increase in the arrival of migrants and asylum seekers, primarily from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. There were concerns that Greece was transforming into a transit country for asylum seekers heading to northern EU member states, as well as a destination country for those that were unable to continue their journey. The development of the fence began in January 2011 under the PASOK government. The fence was reinforced with the expansion of border guards, patrols, FRONTEX presence and technological equipment, a year later, in 2012 under the New Democracy government.

The measures were deemed a success, by the then Minister of  Citizens Protection, who argued in an interview for the Hellenic Police magazine that “ Evros is fully closed. The statistics, for those of you who monitor migration issues, confirm this”.

Year

Land Border

Sea Borders

TOTAL

2008

14.461

30.149

44.610

2009

8.787

27.685

36.472

2010

47.088

6.204

53.292

2011

54.974

1.114

56.088

2012

30.433

3.651

34.043

2013

1.122

11.447

12.233

2014

1.903

43.618

45.421

Source: compiled from Hellenic Police data

By 2015, as Europe’s ‘refugee crisis’ unfolded, the land border was no longer the main entry point. 861,630 migrants and refugees crossed the Greek borders, but only 4,907 did so via land. The importance of the Evros region diminished as the focus shifted to the Greek islands and the hotspots.

The events in Evros in February 2020, rendered the expansion and strengthening of the fence a priority. On the 27th of February 2020, Turkey suspended the 2016 EU-Turkey Statement and directed thousands of migrants to the border. An estimated 12,000 to 25,000, gathered along the Turkish side seeking to cross. Greece responded by closing down the main border points of Kipoi and Kastanies and mobilizing border guards, police, and the army in the area.  High level visits took place in Evros, including by the President of the European Commission, Ursula Von der Leyen, who referred to Greece as Europe’s “shield” (aspida). The choice in wording is significant.

As the Greek Prime Minister spoke of “an asymmetrical threat against Greece’s Eastern borders”, the European counterparts validated the domestic discourse, by highlighting the importance for shields. Fences and walls, serve precisely that function; they shield those within and deter those outside. The further militarization and securitisation of the border has had consequences for those seeking to reach safety. Since 2020, the Evros region has witnessed an unprecedent level of violence, from allegations of push backs, to farmers spraying pesticides onto refugees across the fence, and the use of Long Range Acoustic Devices in several posts along the fence, to blast high-decibel sound waves at migrants attempting to cross the river.

Effective deterrence?

The current expansion of the fence is planned in an area near the dense forest (Psathades Didymoteicho - Kornofolia Souflion), an old point of entry to Greece. The Minister for Citizens Protection estimated the cost at 99.2 million euros budget and argued that the project would address the threat posed by migration to national order and security: "Summer is coming, the river level is dropping, and migration flows are intensifying. Time and events are pressing”.  A similar discourse was adopted in 2021 following the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan with the government warning at the time of the potential “instrumentalization of migrant flows that could possibly occur”. Once more the expansion of the fence was put forth as the best deterrence.

The logic of deterrence is not new. In fact, it is dominant across the EU. In 2021, twelve (12) EU member states penned a letter to the EU Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas and EU Home-Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson, arguing that “Physical barriers appear to be an effective border protection measure that serves the interest of the whole EU, not just member states of first arrival,” and asking for funding to be allocated from the EU budget.

Are walls an effective deterrent? The evidence suggests otherwise. It is hard to argue that a physical barrier does not slow down or redirect movement. All barriers (re)organize the space in which they are situated and what unfolds in it. However, there is little evidence to show that walls and fences overall reduce migration.  Research in 2014 in Greece showed that despite the increase in border personnel in Evros and in technical capacity throughout the fence, migrants were simply redirected to the maritime border; a far more dangerous passage to undertake, particularly in wintertime.

The more segments of the land border are cut off, with no alternative for legal entry to apply for protection, the more people are pushed to utilize the maritime passage or alternative routes to Europe risking their lives (e.g., from Turkey to Italy). Migration does not stop; it is simply redirected. The journey may be delayed, rerouted, or stay the course but it is rare that it is stopped altogether. The reach of border barriers is spatially restricted and thus, their effectiveness, is limited and temporary. This confirmed by the data on Greece both prior (see above) and since 2015 (see below) or from the multiple times migrants have tried to scale the fences of Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco.

Year

Sea border

Land border

2022

12,758

6,022

2021

4,331

4,826

2020

9,714

5,982

2019

59,726

14,887

2018

32,494

18,014

2017

29,718

6,592

2016

173,450

3,784

2015

856,723

4,907

Source: UNHCR Operational data portal

Performative role

Where fences and walls are effective in is their performative rather than instrumental role. An important symbolic political gesture, the fence becomes the line on which the nation-state ‘defends’ itself against real and imagined threats. Their performative function is that they appear impenetrable, secure, and daunting. The image they conjure and the emotions they evoke, are often more important to policy makers than their actual effectiveness.

Recently, the performative significance of the fence was evident in the Prime Minister’s Facebook Sunday review of the week (April 2nd). In it, he argued that the fence has contributed to the prevention of “more than 250,000 illegal immigrants from entering Greek territory”. The figure has been referenced multiple times in the past few months, including by the Minister of Migration and Asylum in support of the border practices Greece deploys at land and sea borders. Though it is impossible to verify and unclear how it is calculated, the quantification of ‘attempted entries’ validates the need for fence and serves to justify the financial cost of its expansion.

Domestically, as well as at EU level, the question of who should pay for the fence(s) has become integral to the political debate.  The European Commission, has consistently refused to fund border walls, arguing they are not an effective measure and that the funding could be spent elsewhere. In opposition, a small group of member states, headed by the Visegrad group comprised of the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary and supported by Italy, Greece, and Austria, argue that not only are walls effective but the EU should pay for them.

Beyond the symbolism, the fence serves also as a physical reminder of the continuous disconnect between the evidence produced from migration research and what policies are selected and implemented. The former has shown that migration is non-linear, complex, multi-faceted, uncertain, and impossible to predict. Fences do not deter people from moving but they do make their journeys longer and more reliant on smugglers- the very industry the EU claims it wishes to combat. And still, fences persist, part of the border ensemble that migrants are asked to navigate, from absence of legal avenues, to fast track border procedures, detention, systematic pushbacks, and forced returns.

Ultimately the issue is about whether the EU and its member states will continue down the path of securitisation policies that endanger the lives of people on the move with limited results or invest -among other measures-in legal and safe pathways, particularly for asylum seekers. All indications in Greece today suggest the former will prevail.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

A. Dimitriadi. (2023) A Steel Fence for Europe’s External Borders. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2023/05/steel-fence-europes-external-borders. Accessed on: 05/03/2024

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