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Concern over proposed Greek border fence

By Elinda Labropoulou, For CNN
A Greek guard patrols the Greek-Turkey border last month. Greece is building a 12-kilometer wall along the border.
A Greek guard patrols the Greek-Turkey border last month. Greece is building a 12-kilometer wall along the border.
  • Greece has proposed building a fence along its border with Turkey
  • Humanitarian groups say it will hurt asylum seekers
  • The Greek government says it will help curb illegal immigration
  • Greece
  • Turkey

Athens, Greece (CNN) -- Greece's decision to build a 12-kilometer (7.5-mile) fence along its border with Turkey in a bid to curb illegal immigration has caused mixed reactions, with humanitarian agencies saying the fence could prevent asylum seekers from reaching safety.

Greek Public Order Minister Christos Papoutsis announced the decision, saying "action is necessary" because more than 100,000 people have entered Greece illegally in the past year, and the country "can no longer tolerate such high numbers."

The European Union border control agency Frontex has said that in October 2010, an average of 245 people per day crossed into Greece illegally, mostly from the overland crossing with Turkey in northeastern Greece. That's where the proposed fence is to be built.

"The fence in question is to act as a preventive measure to curb illegal immigration and will be constructed along the country's only overland border with Turkey," the Public Order Ministry told CNN.

The rest of the border between the two countries is a 200-kilometer (124-mile) river. Illegal migrants usually cross into Greece on inflatable boats or even on foot in the summer, when the waters are low.

The ministry has described the 12-kilometer area for the proposed fence as "a series of country roads with no clear border demarcations."

The Communist Party of Greece has criticised the measure as "barbaric," and humanitarian agencies have expressed concern that the fence could prevent asylum seekers and others in need from reaching safety.

Kalliopi Stefanaki, the UNHCR protection officer for Greece, has described the fence as a "strong measure" but said every country has the right to guard its own borders.

"We agree that Greece in entitled to enhance security at its borders in any way it sees fit," she said. "What we are concerned about is that the rights of those who want to cross this, or any other border, to request protection are protected."

The UNHCR has repeatedly urged Greece and Turkey to update their asylum systems.

"We believe there is a lot of room for improvement on this issue," said Stefanaki. "Greece is not meeting international standards regarding its asylum system."

Commenting on the fence proposal, the European Commission said it would be a "short-term measure" that does not address the heart of the problem. The EU has instead asked for structural measures to discourage traffickers and smugglers.

Official figures show that currently about 90% of migrants who illegally enter the European Union do so through Greece.

"The idea of building more walls around a Fortress Europe is outdated," said Daniel Esdras, the head of the Greek office for the International Organization for Migration.

He also called for more international cooperation in addressing the issue.

"These are not just Greece's borders, but also those of the European Union," Esdras said. "And people will carry on trying to reach a better life unless conditions in their home countries are improved. This is something governments should together be focusing on."

A timeline for the creation of the fence has not been given. The Public Order Ministry says the proposal is still at an initial stage.