Even with guards patrolling the Greek-Turkish land border, Nadir Abdullaweh says no one stopped him when he walked in the dead of night to the Greek border village of Nea Vyssa. Abdullaweh, 37, who's from Oran in northwestern Algeria, says the police didn't catch up to him until dawn, when he and about 10 other migrants were walking along the train tracks on the outskirts of the village. "It did not seem so hard to get here," he told TIME in November, after his release from the Fylakio detention center near the border. "It seemed like a path into Europe that everyone knew."
Now Greece's Public Order Minister Christos Papoutsis wants to block that path with a border fence. Over 128,000 undocumented migrants crossed into Greece last year, more than 40,000 of them along the land border with Turkey, he said as he announced the plan in an interview with the Athens News Agency on Jan. 1. Many crossed along an 8-mile stretch that diverges from the Evros River, which marks most of the Greek-Turkish border. And that's where Papoutsis would like to see the fence, which is made of reinforced barbed wire and concrete. Greece, he said, can no longer manage the flow of illegal migrants into the country, even with the help of Frontex, the E.U. border-patrol agency that sent an emergency force there in November. The government said on Wednesday it also wants to add new detention centers in the area the old ones are so full that human-rights groups have criticized the conditions as inhumane and deplorable. "Greek society has reached its limits in taking in illegal immigrants," he told the Athens News Agency. "Greece can't take it anymore."
Turkey seems to support the fence. The Turkish Foreign Ministry noted on Monday that Greece has to guard its borders, while Gokhan Sozer, who governs the Edirne province, which borders Greece, told Turkish media that the barrier "will come in handy for Greece to curb illegal immigration." Greece had long criticized Turkey for not doing enough to stop illegal immigration from its end, but the countries now say they are cooperating to crack down on people-smuggling rings.
Some Greek politicians, migration experts and human-rights groups, however, have spoken out against the plan. The Greek Communist Party called the border fence "barbaric," and left-wing protest groups, immigration-rights associations and labor unions are planning a rally against the proposed fence on Jan. 15. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Athens questioned the fence's effectiveness. "Every country has a right to control its borders, but these kinds of measures don't give a substantial solution, a comprehensive and humane solution, to the problem of irregular migration," UNHCR spokeswoman Ketty Kehayioglou tells TIME.
Anna Triandafyllidou, a migration scholar affiliated with the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, an Athens-based think-tank, says such a fence would be expensive, especially while Greece is struggling through a deep recession spurred by a huge debt crisis. She adds that a fence would keep out not just economic migrants but also refugees fleeing wars. "Some 21,000 people who crossed into Greece this year were Afghanis. That's huge," she says. "So then the migration issue becomes an asylum issue."
Greece is woefully behind on processing its asylum cases, though a new law pushed by the ruling center-left PASOK party aims to speed up the process. Less than 1% of asylum applications are granted in Greece, the lowest rate in Europe, and UNHCR says the country has a backlog of some 50,000 cases. Many migrants in Greece seeking asylum have grown so frustrated with the years of delay that they have staged hunger strikes, with some even sewing their mouths shut in protest.
Although human-rights groups have criticized Greece for keeping migrants in deplorable conditions in detention centers and mishandling asylum requests, Greek leaders say the E.U. hasn't done much to help the overwhelmed country until recently. In October, after statistics revealed that some 90% of undocumented migrants entered Europe through Greece, the E.U.'s Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom declared that the flow of migration through Greece had reached "alarming proportions."
The following month, the E.U. sent the Frontex rapid-response team to the Evros region where it has helped decrease the number of illegal crossings along the river, the agency says. The European Commission also plans to help Greece access some 300 million euros in aid from refugee funds. But speaking to reporters in Brussels on Monday, Malmstrom's spokesman, Michele Cercone, was cool to the idea of a border fence, calling it a "short-term" solution.
And it may be. The Greek-Turkish land border is not the only entry point for migrants, and Frontex notes that people-smuggling rings are always looking for new routes. Migrants, too, say if people want to get through, they will find a way. Mizanur, a 33-year-old garment worker from Comilla in southeastern Bangladesh, says he paid a smuggler more than 2,000 euros to take him from Romania to Athens through Bulgaria about five months ago. He says he rode in the back of a covered cargo truck driven by a man who paid off officials at the Greek-Bulgarian border.
Now Mizanur, who declined to give his last name for fear of being deported, shares a tiny apartment in a rundown section of central Athens with six men, also from Bangladesh. Although he has worked as a supervisor at garment factories in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, he can't find a job in Athens. So he sells vegetables out of a plastic crate. "If my mother could see me, she would be crying," he says, shaking his head. "I found a way to get here. But I wonder every day if I made a mistake."