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Kai Ryssdal: You could say, if you wanted to mix your metaphors, that Greece is the European Union’s Arizona. Much as a healthy portion of illegal immigration to the United States comes over the Arizona-Mexico border, so too is the small Mediterranean country the back door into Europe for 90 percent of the continent’s illegal immigrants. Many of them make their way in through a seven-and-half-mile stretch of farm fields on the Greek border with Turkey. And much like in Arizona, that’s where Greece wants to build a border fence.
Joanna Kakissis reports.
Joanna Kakissis: Nadir Abdullaweh is 37 and has a college degree. But back home in Algeria, the only steady work he could find was selling fake designer clothes on the black market. And even then, he could barely get by.
Nadir Abdullaweh: You can’t go up. Sometimes you can’t find money to buy potatoes or bread or something like that.
He’d heard the jobs were in Europe. So he took a cheap flight to Istanbul. Then he paid a smuggler about $540 to help him slip into Greece on a foggy morning. Border police found him at a nearby train station. They took him to a detention center near the city of Orestiada.
Abdullaweh is out now and planning to walk nearly 600 miles to Athens. And if he gets a chance, he’ll leave Greece and head to a richer European country.
Abdullaweh: If I get chance to go out of the country, I do. If not, I looking for job. I don’t dream like I’m rich man, no. Just job, house, wife, that’s it.
Abdullaweh walks down a country road with an Afghan mechanic, a Sudanese accountant and three men from Pakistan. They all dream of jobs that pay in Euros.
But the reality is that many migrants will end up trapped and jobless in Athens. Public Order Minister Christos Papoutsis says the country is broke and doesn’t have the resources to help them. That’s why he wants to block the path with the border fence.
The fence is months away from being built. The Greek and European border guards who patrol the area say they can’t catch everyone.
Fotis Papazoglou is a border policeman. He says the fence will be a barrier.
Fotis Papzoglou: Now they have nothing to disturb them. They just walk and pass. It’s no problem for them, it’s much more easier.
The crossing can be dangerous. Orestiada police chief George Salamangas shows photographs of immigrants who have drowned crossing the Evros river, which divides Greece and Turkey. But he also shows videos of men in suits strolling into Greek corn fields.
George Salamangas: Many of the immigrants tell us they’re Palestinian or Somalian so they can get asylum. But we have interpreters who can figure out where they’re really from.
Many are actually Tunisian, Moroccan and Algerian. But Salamangas says there are also a growing number of Afghans.
Faruk Aktas owns a clock shop in Edirne, a Turkish city near the Greek border. He often sees foreigners with torn clothes and big backpacks walking the streets here. He says they’re determined to get to Greece.
Faruk Aktas: They’re hungry, and some even try to cross the border by swimming across it. They’re willing to die.
About seven miles away in the Greek village of Nea Vyssa, a group of grandfathers sip coffee at a cafe owned by Christos Kyriakidis. Most mornings, he says immigrants camp out at the train station across the street.
Christos Kyriakidis: Greece is like an unguarded vineyard. It’s vulnerable, and those who want to get in here are taking advantage of it. Even now, they’re coming in big groups.
It’s cold these days, and some of the immigrants don’t have shoes or coats. Kyriakidis says he feels bad for them, and brings them milk, bread and coffee. But lately, he says he’s been running low on supplies. He wonders if, soon, he’ll just have to stop sharing.
In Orestiada, Greece, I’m Joanna Kakissis for Marketplace.
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