The coast guard is on on the alert against a massive influx of people fleeing a possible US strike against Iraq. Coast guard sources say the problem is particularly serious now due to the tens of thousands of illegal immigrants already waiting on the Turkish coast for passage, many of whom have been there since the war in Afghanistan. These people want to enter a European Union country, and Greece is the EU’s eastern gateway. They entrust their lives to ruthless human traffickers who promise to help them for stiff fees. Unfortunately, all too often, the result is death by drowning in the Aegean Sea, after being crammed into an overloaded, unseaworthy craft. The seven bodies of illegal immigrants found earlier this month in the sea near the Dodecanese island of Symi are believed to be from a ship that sank on its way from the Turkish coast, one of many in the recent past. Merchant Marine Minister Giorgos Anomeritis talked to the EU deputies visiting Greece this week about the problems the country was facing with illegal immigrants, and the coast guard’s work. He said Greece has applied to carry out the Triton pilot program on sea patrols under joint operational planning by member states with a Mediterranean coastline, as the ministry has the experience as well as the means to do so. The coast guard’s effectiveness in dealing with illegal immigration resulted in a 45-percent drop between 2001 and 2002 in the number of people entering Greece illegally. In 2002, 3,945 people were apprehended for entering the country illegally, compared to 6,864 the previous year. The reduction is also due to the activation of the Greek-Turkish accord, which provides for joint action against the problem. In many cases, the Turkish coast guard acted on information from their Greek counterparts to prevent boats from entering Greek waters, particularly in the early months of 2001. However, on several other occasions, the Turkish authorities turned a blind eye to the activities of human traffickers. The Triton program, which the coast guard will be proposing for implementation during the current Greek presidency of the EU, provides for three- to four-day joint operations against illegal immigration in selected areas of the maritime borders of EU member states with a Mediterranean coastline. Greece wants to combine operational results and experience with strategic knowledge into a common European policy on dealing with illegal immigration by sea, particularly where organized crime networks are involved, according to Merchant Marine Ministry sources.