Why is the E.U. Sending Armed Guards to Greece?

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Angelos Tzortzinis / AFP / Getty Images

A migrant from Pakistan holds his daughter while walking in Nea Vissa, Greece, near the border with Turkey. A flood of would-be migrants and asylum seekers in Greece's northeastern border region with Turkey has sparked a humanitarian crisis, according to the local United Nations refugee agency.

As the world watches Greece wrestle with its crushing debt and crippled economy, the country is quietly struggling to manage another burgeoning crisis: the dramatic influx of illegal immigrants crossing from Greece into the European Union. Officials say Greece receives about 85% of Europe's total illegal immigrants, many of them coming through Turkey. Now it doesn't know what to do with them — or how to stem the flow.

So at Greece's request, the E.U. took the unprecedented step on Tuesday of agreeing to deploy border guards to help the country police its land border. "We could not handle this situation alone anymore," says Christos Papoutsis, Greece's Minister of Citizen Protection. "We don't have the centers to house the people, we don't have the staff to help them."

Greece and Frontex, the Warsaw-based agency that coordinates the patrolling of the E.U.'s external borders, are still working out the details of the deployment, including the number of guards — who will be armed — as well as when they will arrive. But both Papoutsis and a spokeswoman for the E.U. Commission, the 27-nation bloc's executive arm, say the guards — who are part of the so-called rapid-intervention force — will operate under Greek command — and that the deployment will happen "as soon as possible."

This will be the first time the rapid-intervention force has been deployed since it was created in 2007. And in another sign that the E.U. is taking the migration influx into Greece more seriously than ever before, earlier this month Frontex opened a regional center in the port city of Piraeus, the agency's first office outside of its Warsaw headquarters.

Though the number of illegal migrants entering Europe has decreased overall, the number of illegal crossings along Greece's land border has gone up, according to Frontex. Greece was the point of entry for about 90% of illegal border crossings into the E.U. in the second quarter of this year, compared to 65% in the first quarter. The E.U. Commissioner for Home Affairs, Cecilia Malmstroem, said in a statement on Oct. 24 that the number of illegal immigrants at the Greek land border with Turkey has "reached alarming proportions," adding that "Greece is manifestly not able to face the situation alone."

Malmstroem pointed out that one hotspot for illegal crossings is an eight-mile stretch near the northeastern Greek town of Orestiada. "Every day, we have more than 300 people trying to enter illegally along this area," says Greek minister Papoutsis. "In relation to the size and population of Greece, that is essentially like adding an entire new village to the country every day."

One reason so many migrants are now trying to cross through Greece is the increased sea patrols off the coasts of Spain and Italy, countries through which many North African migrants had slipped into the E.U. in the past. Libya has also stepped up its sea patrols, cutting off another well-traveled route into Europe through Sicily and southern Italy.

Many of those who have made their way into Greece identify themselves as Afghans and often ask for asylum, though few have identification. Frontex has noted a six-fold increase in the number of Afghans who sought to cross into Greece illegally in the second quarter of 2010.

Because few illegal immigrants have papers, it's hard to repatriate them. For those asking for asylum, the process could keep them waiting in limbo in Greece for years. This summer, the country had a backlog of some 52,000 asylum claims waiting to be processed, according to the United Nations. Greece itself is partly at fault for the backlog, since asylum requests are funneled through one central, understaffed office. Papoutsis says the government is now drafting a law that would help make the evaluation of asylum requests more efficient, including adding offices to speed up the process.

But in its quest to get a handle on the flood of illegal immigrants, Greece also has an E.U. rule called the Dublin Regulation adding to its troubles. Under the law, countries can send asylum seekers back to the country through which they first entered the E.U. — and these days, in most cases, that's Greece. Stavros Lambrinidis, a Greek member of the European parliament who works on asylum and border issues, and other E.U. leaders are calling for changes to the regulation that would, among other things, stop the practice of sending asylum seekers back to already overwhelmed countries such as Greece.

"Greece is the main entry point now, so everyone stays here," he says. "But the rest of Europe must help and take people in, because the pressure on Greece is enormous right now. It's in the best interest of everyone, especially the asylum-seekers."

Lambrindis and Papoutsis also hope neighboring Turkey will help the Greeks break up the human-trafficking rings that smuggle people into Europe. But in the meantime, Greeks are focusing on the immediate problem — stopping illegal migration across their land border — before increasingly fragile relations between migrants and citizens deteriorate further. "Greeks are already worried about jobs, the decreasing quality of their lives in this bad economy," says Papoutsis. "They are afraid. And I don't want the xenophobes in this country to exploit that."