ATHENS - With most of the attention over Turkish provocations coming in the Aegean and East Mediterranean, and refugees and migrants on Greek islands, Greek fishermen on the Evros River border with Turkey have been engaged to keep an eye out there.
But it’s become dangerous, they told Germany’s state-run Deutsche Welle broadcasting system and news outlet, to the point where they and their boats have been seized and they have to pay for their return or risk being put in jail – even though they claimed they were in Greece.
Thanasis Kamilaris said he knows his way around the river area that separates the countries, a delta of some 200-square kilometers (77 square miles) where refugees and migrants have drowned trying to cross over often perilous currents.
Greece has a wall partially blocking entry but there are spots where those who can get across can get around, a vexing problem that has seen them elude guards and even the European Union’s border patrol Frontex.
As a supplement, the Greek government has turned to the fishermen who make their living there and know it well, a mix of canals, tributaries and lagoons hard for even naval or military forces to watch constantly, and also plans to boost other security forces there, including police and guards.
Greece’s Defense Ministry, said DW, has deputized them as “virtual” National Guard members and even equipped them to help patrol the border but rising tensions have made it difficult and risky, even though the fishermen said they had for years worked side-by-side with Turkish fishermen and even waved at Turkish guards.
Conflicts between Turkish border patrol agents and Greek fisherman have occurred more often. . "They even threaten us on Greek territory," said Kamilaris. "I was on the river and was ready to cast my nets when I was approached by Turkish soldiers from the other shore. They fixed weapons on me immediately and said, 'This is Turkey.' But I was at least 100 meters from the border."
Vasilis Vitsas said another colleague was arrested and Turkish troops impounded his boat. He said: "It's a business for the Turks. You have to pay €5,000 ($5,600) to get out of jail, otherwise you are stuck there for six months. One of our colleagues had to pay another €4,000 in legal fees to get his boat back." He said no one ever talks about these cases, not even the media.
Kamiliaris said the current changed after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan survived a near-assassination in a failed July, 2016 coup attempt against him and in the aftermath purged civil society and the military, jailed public workers and reporters and become more volatile.
The fishermen said they feel like their government has left them to their own devices after asking their help. "If it weren't for us, this would all be Turkish," said Vitsas, adding the only time he and colleagues are safe is when accompanied by police and soldiers.
"We fishermen are the eyes and ears of the military and the police. We are doing all we can to keep this part of the river Greek,” as they are asking the New Democracy government for help during a time when the focus is over Turkey making a deal with Libya dividing the seas between them and planning to drill for energy off Crete and claiming waters near Greek islands.
The government said it hasn’t turned a blind eye to the problem and will be adding another 400 border patrol agents to stop refugees and migrants and further secure the area, near the spot where in February, 2018 two Greek soldiers accidentally crossed into Turkey and were held for more than five months before being released after fears they could face espionage charges.
Sotiris Serbos, a Professor of International Relations at the University of Thrace, told DW that Erdogan is the catalyst. "If Ankara believes an escalation to be advantageous, it will come. Erdogan's self-confidence has only grown since Turkey began its Syria offensive,” he said, adding that the Turkish leader will keep playing his country’s geo-political advantage.
He said the EU, reluctant to get tougher, fearing Erdogan will release millions more refugees and migrants who came to Turkey fleeing war and strife in their homelands and let human traffickers flood the bloc through already overwhelmed Greek islands.
He said the tensions will remain until the EU figures how to handle Erdogan, who defied soft sanctions over Turkish ships drilling for oil and gas in Cypriot sovereign waters and ignored entreaties to stop, including from the US.
"Erdogan would prefer a bilateral solution," said Serbos, "but Europe should set the agenda, not Turkey."