ATHENS, Greece -- Greece is quadrupling the number of guards at its border with Turkey and boosting other defenses in part because of a potential influx of Syrian refugees, a government minister said Monday.
Greece is the busiest entry point for illegal immigrants trying to reach the European Union. Turkey, meanwhile, is hosting thousands of Syrians who have been fleeing their country's civil war.
There's been no sign yet of a notable number of Syrians making the roughly 1,400 kilometer (870-mile) trek across Turkey to Greece. But the government in Athens is under pressure to crack down on illegal migration in general, especially as the country struggles with an economic crisis whose symptoms include an unemployment rate of more than 20 percent.
Greek Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias said 1,800 additional officers had been ordered to the border with Turkey. Greece currently has around 600 border guards in the area, according the Panhellenic Association of Border Guard Officers. Dendias also said 26 floating barriers will be placed along the Evros River – known as the Meric River in Turkey – that divides the two countries.
"There is major concern," Dendias said when asked about the situation in Syria, where rights activists estimate more than 19,000 people have been killed since a popular uprising against President Bashar Assad's regime began in March 2011.
"With the approval of the prime minister, 1,800 border guards are being transferred ... so that at long last we can attempt to seal the Evros area. Our aim is to put an end to Greece's" porous frontier, Dendias said after meeting Prime Minister Antonis Samaras.
Dendias recently announced that a 10-kilometer fence on the Greek-Turkish border, costing an estimated (EURO)3.2 million ($3.9 million), would be completed in October.
Additional details of the new border security plans were to be announced Tuesday. But the border guard officers' association sharply criticized Dendias' decision, describing it as poorly planned and arguing that additional policing would have little effect unless plans to build dozens of immigrant detention centers are carried out first.
"Without other parts of the program in place, the presence of police along the border does not act as a deterrent. It acts as a magnet," the association's General Secretary Constantine Arzoumanidis told The Associated Press. "Immigrants know they give themselves up to the police at the border, and because of the detention space, in a few days they will be free in Athens."