It was past midnight and the rain was pouring down heavily when the screams, calling for help, came from the side of the river. The border guards who were at that time patrolling the flooded Evros bank near Madra village shone the searchlights in the direction of the screams. It was then that they saw people hanging from the trees shouting and gesturing.
Putting themselves at risk of being swept away by the torrential waters, the guards helped them climb down the trees and led them safely to the ground. They managed to rescue nine people, all of them illegal immigrants. An 11-year-old boy was missing.
They told police that Turkish smugglers put them in a rubber boat before pushing it into the rushing river. They said they were told to row their way to the Greek side. But the rubber boat burst as it struck a cluster of reeds, forcing them to climb the trees to save their lives.
Incidents like this used to be a daily routine along the Turkish border in the Evros region. Not any more. A crackdown on illegal immigration code-named Aspida (“shield”) appears to be yielding fruit since its launch in August last year.
Last July, 6,000 people were arrested in Orestiada, according to police data. In January the number dropped to 45. The construction of the 12.5-kilometer barbed-wire fence along the land border with Turkey, which was met with skepticism at home as well as from many EU officials, has allegedly succeeded in blocking one of the most popular transit routes for migrants seeking to make their way to the West.
“Nothing can get through the fence,” Orestiada police chief Giorgos Salamangas told Kathimerini.
“Evros has turned the page on the issue of illegal immigration,” he added.
Day and night thermal cameras installed on the fence scan the borderline sending real-time images to the police operation center. At the same time, police cars patrol the area behind the metal fence.
“We feel relieved. The fence is effective. The results are positive,” said the deputy prefect for Evros, Gogo Nikolaou.
Tightened security has also been welcomed among the Turkish population on the other side of the border. According to a report in the English-language Hurriyet Daily News, the residents of Karaagac and Bosnakoy villages near the border with Greece have expressed support for the project, saying that tighter security will curb the flow of illegal migrants.
“The border barrier is very good news, as it will discourage illegal migrants who step on our crops and vegetables while trying to cross the border,” a local told the newspaper.
The man said that 20 to 30 people were trying to cross the border through the village every night, trampling his crops. His village, he said, had begun to gain “a bad reputation as a smugglers’ place.”