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As the world is tuned in to Europe again this week due to the numerous bond auctions and the region’s ever-present sovereign debt risks, an important policy decision was reached on Monday regarding the looming issue to contain the influx of illegal immigrants to Europe via Greece along its border with Turkey.

While Greece had outlined a plan over the weekend to construct a fence or wall along its 206km (or 128 mile) border with Turkey, a stretch of land where the majority of refugees enter the EU, on Monday Greece revised its plans and said it will construct a defense barrier along a 12km stretch prone to the most illegal crossings located in the north-east of the country.

Greece has already made it clear to the EU that it cannot cope with the numbers of migrants (in particular from Asia and Africa) arriving illegally. The European Commission estimates that more than 80% of illegal immigrants enter the EU via the border with Greece, and according to Frontex, the EU border agency that patrols the area, there was a 369% increase in the number of illegal immigrants crossing the northern Greek border in the nine months through September 2010 versus the previous year.

Obviously, the figures are staggering and the problem is real. As it relates more broadly to Europe, we’d expect governments to push measures to limit illegal immigration as growth forecast are strained in 2011 and 2012 and as governments push through budget consolidations (austerity) over the next years. 

While this subject can be debated from a number of angles, the German publication Der Spiegel did a wonderful job presenting commentary from various German media sources that express differing viewpoints, all of which help to frame the debate. We include this commentary below:

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"The fact that Athens is considering the construction of a massive wall along its border with Turkey is absurd, given that both are members of NATO. It gives us a foretaste of what would happen if Turkey is, one day, accepted into the European Union. Europe's doors would be thrown wide open. At the same time, no one should kid themselves that a fence would stop people wanting to cross the border."

The weekly Die Zeit writes:

"This is a trouble spot: More than 100,000 illegal immigrants crossed the border here last year. Nine out of every 10 refugees fleeing poverty arrive in the EU via this route. The placement of 200 border guards here in November has stemmed the number of immigrants but not halted it. Now around 200 illegal immigrants arrive every night, but before the deployment of European Frontex guards, that figure was as high as 450."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"The Greek plan was clearly an act of despair… There are clear signs that the erection of a fence or a new wall at the Evros border river will not solve the core problem but rather shift it elsewhere. Illegal immigration does not take place along clearly defined routes; it is controlled by those criminal gangs for whom people smuggling is a profitable business."

"Illegal immigration is closely connected to organized crime -- that is the sad reality. Mafia groups in Turkey, Ukraine and Italy run their human trafficking as an industry. Propagating illusions is a key part of the industry, illusions about what awaits an African or Asian in the rich European countries of France, Germany or England, which are the end destinations of most immigrants. In addition, there is also the fact that people smugglers rarely operate without the complicity of corrupt border officials, who gladly turn a blind eye to some things for the right money. From this perspective, the European Commission is correct to react skeptically to Athens' construction plans and to demand that the Greeks first do something to deter and discourage the traffickers."

But the law is clear: (...) asylum applications can only be made in the country of entry. And so Greece continues to cram more and more refugees into its overflowing camps..."

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Clearly, Greece and the EU are just at the tip of the iceberg in determining solutions to the inflow of illegal immigrants via Greece. As Greece is now known for its excessive public debt, we thought this topic is additive to the larger assessment of Europe’s economic health and the issues surrounding the union and policy making of unequal states.

Matthew Hedrick

Analyst