Many people holding Syrian, Afghan, Somalian, Bangladeshi or Pakistani passports seeking asylum in the European Union move out of Greece when they have the feeling that their administrative situation will not improve there. The route to other EU countries through the Balkans starts in northern Greece, onward to either North Macedonia or Albania. Greek police, it is said, are quite relaxed about people leaving the country.
“We have many people who pass our area who want to go to Europe,” says Konstantinos Sionidis, the mayor of Paionia, a working-class municipality of 30,000 at Greece’s northern border. “It’s not a pleasant situation for us,” he adds.
But leaving via Paionia is getting more difficult. In May 2023, Frontex guards started patrolling at North Macedonia’s border. Near the highway, one young woman from Sierra Leone said she and her friend tried to leave four times in the past month. Once, they got as far as the Serbian border. The other times, they were arrested immediately in North Macedonia at night, coming out of the forest, by Frontex officers asking “Do you want to go to Germany?” (No.) “They don't want us here [in Greece],” she says. “Let us go!”
However, the European Commission has plans to make it harder for people to travel through North Macedonia (and other parts of the Western Balkan route). According to a national programming document for the 2021 - 2027 EU “border management” funding for Greek authorities, €47m are budgeted to build an “automated border surveillance system” at Greece’s borders with North Macedonia and Albania. The new system shall explicitly be modeled on the one already deployed at the land border with Türkiye, along the Evros river.
The virtual border wall
Evros is described as a surveillance “testing ground.” In the early 2000s, police used thermal cameras and binoculars to spot people attempting to cross the border. As Greece and other Member-States increased their efforts to keep people out of the EU, more funding came in for drones, heartbeat detectors, more border guards – and for an “automated border surveillance system.”
In 2021, the Greek government unveiled dozens of surveillance towers, equipped with cameras, radars and heat sensors. Officials claimed these would be able to alert regional police stations when detecting people approaching the border. At the time, media outlets raved about this 24-hour “electronic shield” that would “seal” Evros with cameras that can see “up to 15 km” into Türkiye.
Greece is not the first country to buy into the vision of automated, omnipotent border surveillance. The German Democratic Republic installed automated rifles near the border with West-Germany, for instance. But the origin of the current trend towards automated borders lies in the United States. In the 1970s, sensors originally built for deployment in Vietnam were installed at the Mexican border. Since then, “the relationship between surveillance and law enforcement has been one between salespeople and officers who are not experts,” says Dave Maas, an investigator at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Somebody buys surveillance towers, leaves office and three administrations later, people are like: ‘Hey, this did not deliver as promised’, and then the new person is like: ‘Well I wasn't the one who paid for it, so here is my next idea’.”
At the US-Mexico border, the towers are “like a scarecrow,” says Geoff Boyce, who used to direct the Earlham College Border Studies Program in Arizona. His research showed that, in cases where migrants could see the towers, they took longer, more dangerous routes to avoid detection. “People are dying outside the visual range of the towers.”
No data is available that would hint that the Greek system is different. While the Greek government shares little information about the system in Evros, former minister for citizen protection Takis Theodorikakos mentioned it earlier this year in a parliamentary session. He claimed that the border surveillance system in Evros had been used to produce the official statistics for people deterred at the Evros border in 2022. But thermal cameras, for example, cannot show an exact number of people, or even differentiate people from animals.
In Evros, the automated border surveillance system was also intended to be used for search-and-rescue missions. Last year, a group of asylum-seekers were stranded on an islet on the Evros river for nearly a month. Deutsche Welle reported that a nearby pylon with heat sensors and cameras should have been able to immediately locate the group. Since then, authorities have continued to be accused of delaying rescue missions.
“At the border, it is sometimes possible to see people stranded with your own eyes,” says Lena Karamanidou, who has been researching border violence in Evros for decades. “And [they] are saying the cameras that can see up to 15 kilometers into Türkiye can’t see them.”
Keeping people in
In contrast to the system in Evros, the aim of the newly planned automated border surveillance systems appears to be to stop people from leaving Greece. Current policing practices there are very different from those at Evros.
At Greece’s border with North Macedonia, “we’ve heard reports that the police were actively encouraging people to leave the country,” says Manon Louis of the watchdog organization Border Violence Monitoring Network. “In testimonies collected by BVMN, people have reported that the Greek police dropped them off at the Macedonian border.”
“It’s an open secret,” says Alexander Gkatsis from Open Cultural Center, a nonprofit in the center of Paionia, “everybody in this area knows.”
Thirty years ago, lots of people came from Albania to Paionia, when there were more jobs in clothing factories and agriculture, many of which are now done by machines. These days, the region is struggling with unemployment and low wages. In 2015, it drew international media attention for hosting the infamous Idomeni camp. Sionidis, the Paionia mayor, says he didn’t know anything about plans for an automated border system until we asked him.
“The migration policy is decided by the minister of migration in Athens,” says Sionidis. He was also not consulted on Frontex coming to Paionia a few years ago. But he readily admits that his municipality is but one small pawn in a Europe-wide negotiation. “[Brussels and Athens] have to make one decision for the whole European border,” says Sionidis, “If we don't have the electronic wall here, then we won’t have it at Evros.”
Originally published on 19 December, 2023. Updated on 7 February 2024.