ATHENS, Greece -- As thousands of refugees arrived on Greece's shores this summer on their way to western Europe, and the harrowing images of young children who drowned in the Eastern Aegean Sea made headlines around the world, attention is shifting to Greece's land borders.
The record numbers of migrants and refugees arriving in Greece from Turkey by boat -- more than 2,500 on Wednesday alone -- are a recent phenomenon. Not so long ago, the shortest, and safest, route was the 125 mile land border that runs along the Evros river in northern Greece.
The river is a natural barrier, but a 6.5 mile strip of fields between the villages of Kastanies and the town of Nea Vyssa was a popular way to enter. This changed, however, when Greece started constructing a fence in October 2011.
It was completed in December 2012, at a cost of about $3.3 million dollars. Built on a concrete base and made of strong barbed wire, it's 4 meters tall and equipped with thermal cameras, which scan the surrounding area.
The decision to build the fence was controversial. The European Commission argued in 2011 that it "would not effectively discourage immigrants or smugglers who would simply seek alternative routes into the European Union.” But the government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras went ahead, fearing that access to Greece at the land border was too easy. The numbers of migrants and refugees arrested while trying to cross into the country from Turkey reached 100,000 in 2011, according to the UN refugee agency.
The effects of the fence were instantly felt, according to the authorities, with migration numbers in the area falling as much as 90 percent immediately after it was erected.
Though the flow of migrants and refugees crossing the northern land border reduced, the numbers of those arriving on the Eastern Aegean islands rose considerably from 2012 to 2013, and dramatically from 2014 onwards, according to the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy. The journey for those who still attempt to cross the river is perilous.
Three months before the fence was completed, Greece launched Operation Shield, which reinforced patrols along the length of the land and river border. Despite funding problems the operation's mandate was renewed indefinitely in June. A number of police officers even offered to continue working at the border voluntarily.
The fence in Evros almost collapsed last winter because of heavy rain and winds. While it was partially repaired, the incident renewed the debate about whether or not it should be there in the first place.
Discussion of border protection policy has been dividing opinion in Greece, among politicians and citizens. Though the previous New Democracy-PASOK government that built the fence considered it an easy and cost-effective way to protect Greek borders, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras' Syriza party appears divided. Some prominent members, like former Migration Minister Tasia Christodoulopoulou, have explicitly argued against it, while others, like former Minister of Citizen Protection Giannis Panousis, have argued that the fence has been useful and should be kept.
The challenge of migrant and refugees flows has reached crisis levels and is an issue concerning politicians in Greece, and Europe more broadly. The heads of European governments convened for an emergency summit in Brussels on Wednesday. The leaders agreed to increase funding to humanitarian aid organizations, provide assistance to transit countries, relocate 120,000 migrants and refugees across the region, and intensify identification procedures in Italy and Greece by November. The EU leaders appeared divided, however, over long-term solutions to deal with the massive flow of refugees and migrants arriving in Europe.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said after the meeting that Europe has finally begun to realize that the refugee crisis is a European issue, in need of a European solution. "No state can afford to only look after its own borders," he said.
EU leaders will reconvene on the issue in three weeks.