Published on People Move

To build or not to build – that is NOT the question

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Right after the holiday season Greece announced their controversial plan to build a 12 km long wall to stop the flood of illegal immigrants to the EU. The wall will cover only a fraction of the total length of the border and is aimed to be built in the area that is worst affected by illegal border crossings estimated to amount to 350 people every day, making Greece the leading entry point of illegal immigrants to the EU. As provocative as it may sound, in an economy that is suffering from severe difficulties and rampaging unemployment figures, blocking immigrants from entering is becoming one of the priority political actions to moderate fiscal expenses that is visible to the domestic population. Even though opponents have raised loud objections against the project, according to a recent poll 59 percent of the Greeks approved of the plan. And one has to admit it has an intuitive appeal of simplicity and logic: once you close the drain the flow will stop. Yet, as simple as it may sound, this is not how it works.

The idea of building a wall is not new, and similar experiments are being explored at the US-Mexico border, India-Bangladesh border, and Spain-North Africa border. The history is yet to witness a wall that actually solved the problem of inequality of opportunities that is the root cause of migration and stemmed the inflow of immigrants (legal and illegal alike). More than 20 years have passed since the fall of the most infamous wall in Berlin, and building a new wall between Greece and Turkey is not likely to be a success either – at its best it will direct the prospective immigrants to other parts of the border, and at worst it may succeed in blocking the most vulnerable migrants, i.e. refugees in true need for international protection, from entering.

Instead of assessing the initiative at its face value, it should be seen as a cri du coeur from a troubled nation that is being tasked to shoulder a lion share of illegal immigrants to the EU while at the same time its own economy is facing serious fiscal turmoil. The inability of the authorities to deal with the existing immigrants in Greece has voiced loud criticism of “inhuman” conditions by other countries, but improvements are yet to be seen. Rather than judging and debating the plan of wall construction, combined efforts should be devoted to finding actionable policies and proper financing for dealing with the uncontrolled flows of migrants into Greece and further into other EU countries. Turning a blind eye to the current situation is costly to the EU in the long run, the Greece economy already in the short run, and most importantly a human tragedy for all the mistreated immigrants who end up neglected while waiting for more effective policies to emerge.



Elina Scheja

Economist, Migration and Remittances Team, Development Prospects Group, World Bank

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