Security patrol unit scans Turkey’s west coast for migrants

SAMOS – The radar screen shows three vessels inside Greek territorial waters. «Take positions for interception,» shouts Ensign Ioannis Mozas, commander of the coast guard boat night patrol. The four-member crew and two coast guard special forces commandos arm themselves with automatic weapons and take positions around the deck as the boat patrols the Aegean Sea between the Greek island of Samos and the Turkish mainland. The narrow strip of sea is favored by human traffickers or desperate migrants trying to reach Greece and the rest of the European Union. It’s also one of the front lines in the effort to protect the August 13-29 Olympics. Security officials are concerned about terrorists trying to slip into Greece along the smuggling routes. But even as security is beefed up for the Games – with many coast guard vessels and men used to protect the port of Piraeus near Athens – it will become more difficult to keep track of smugglers and illegal immigrants. On the night patrols, every vessel spotted by the coast guard boat is seen as a potential threat. On Sunday night, the three vessels spotted were legitimate Turkish fishing boats. That is not always the case. Samos is so close to the Turkish shore that some immigrants have swum across wearing flippers or floated aboard children’s plastic boats or makeshift wooden rafts. Other times, smugglers have ferried them on fishing boats, sailboats and even speedboats that can make the trip in a matter of minutes. «This is the closest (island) point to Turkey,» notes Mozas as he points to the Turkish islet known as Aghios Nikolaos to Greeks and Baytak Adasi to Turks. «It is just 1.2 kilometers (0.7 miles).» Last year, the coast guard detained over 2,400 illegal immigrants and arrested more than 70 smugglers across Greece. Although the figure is significantly smaller compared to 2001, when some 6,800 immigrants were detained, experts believe that for every immigrant detained another manages to get through. Authorities claim that none of the detained immigrants have links to groups such as the Al Qaeda terrorist network. But recent violent events in Turkey have given the Greek border patrols an added urgency. Four suicide bombings in Istanbul in November killed 62 people. In April, Turkish police arrested nine suspected Islamic militants who had allegedly been planning to set off a bomb at a NATO summit in Istanbul in June. The border issue was discussed recently during a visit to Athens by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Greek Premier Costas Karamanlis is said to have called for stricter border controls and explored plans to establish a joint task force to crack down on illegal immigration. The task will not be easy, as more than half of the 7,000-strong coast guard force will be called to defend the ports of the Olympic cities. In Piraeus alone – the temporary home of about 13,000 visitors, state officials and dignitaries aboard at least eight cruise ships – there will be more than 2,500 coast guard officers. This means fewer resources to watch over Greece’s vast coastline of 15,000 kilometers (9,320 miles) and some 6,000 islands and islets. «Two officers have already left for Piraeus,» notes Nikos Constantellis, the deputy coast guard commander on the island of Samos. «This means that some are working double shifts in order to get the work done.» Some already complain. «I want people to know how hard we work, because I don’t think they know how it feels to be out here every night,» Mozas said aboard the patrol craft. «We work endless hours.» He said that during the summer the situation will deteriorate as the number of immigrants attempting to cross over increases significantly. «Some 200 illegal immigrants are being detained daily…on the island of Mytilene,» Angelos Tsigris, a professor of criminology at the police academy, said in a recent conference. He stressed that the eastern Aegean island should have had a border guard unit with at least 30 men, but as it turns out «there is not a single border guard posted there.» Greece has some 5,000 border guards, but they mainly work along the country’s northern borders, areas favored by Balkan organized crime groups for smuggling drugs, weapons and illegal immigrants. This may well be the reason why the Greek government has asked for NATO’s help. The NATO Standing Naval Force Mediterranean is to patrol the outer borders of Greece to the east, west and south of Athens.