Double life on the border for Greek undercover immigration
‘Nick’ is an undercover officer who operates on Greece's northeastern border with Turkey, a major smuggling route through which thousands of clandestine immigrants slip into the country every year.Thessaloniki -- A veteran of Greece's anti-immigration police, 'Nick' has driven thousands of miles posing as a Turkish trucker, dodged an Albanian killer and was nearly shot by Greek border guards.
It's all in a day's work for the undercover officer who operates on Greece's northeastern border with Turkey, a major smuggling route through which thousands of clandestine immigrants slip into the country every year, seeking a better future in the European Union.
EU border watchdog Frontex calls the region delineated by the River Evros, Greece's natural boundary with Turkey, "the hottest area of illegal immigration in Europe".
Over 50 percent of some 82,000 migrants who crossed onto the continent last year came through this region, Frontex deputy executive director Gil Arias said during a joint border exercise on Evros in May.
For the past five years, 'Nick' has made this area his second home, clocking thousands of hours behind the wheel of police-issue freighters, posing as a long-haul trucker trying to score a little extra income.
He carries seven different cell phones -- which ring incessantly -- and assumes various Balkan nationalities to throw smugglers off the scent whilst brokering deals to transport migrants aboard his truck.
"Sometimes I pretend to be Bulgarian, Albanian, Georgian on Turkish," the officer said. "It can take up to six months to close a deal. I usually ask for 1,500 euros (2,100 dollars) and the deal closes at 1,000-1,200 euros."
Smugglers have a different price list: Africans and Asians pay around 8,000 euros (11,000 dollars) on average for the trip to Greece while migrants from China are charged 13,000 euros, though the cost is lower by sea, he said,
"In Greece, migrant smuggling is a business more profitable than even drug trafficking. Networks can earn up 120 million euros a month," he said.
Most of the migrants say they want to get to France and Scandinavian countries, mainly Finland, 'Nick' said.
Police made over 53,000 arrests in northern Greece last year, including some 500 caught as a result of 'Nick's' undercover activities. He hands the migrants he carries to the police, but helps fellow truck drivers evade arrest or land lighter court sentences to maintain his contacts inside Turkey.
Things are not always smooth. Once he didn't go home for three months after hearing that an Albanian convict had put out word he wanted him dead. On another occasion he was nearly shot by Greek border guards.
"Because of a cross-department blunder I found myself lying on the ground with Greek border guards aiming their guns at my head," he said.
"I tell you, by the time I could convince them that I'm a police officer my heart had nearly leaped out of my chest."
Around a year ago, senior police officers began discouraging the arrest of illegal immigrants because the country is running out of space to detain them.
The Greek interior ministry says it has spent over 10 million euros in the last four years to build a dozen new migrant holding centres for 3,800 people.
Yet more than 146,000 migrants were caught in the country last year, some of whom may have been in Greece for several years. This was higher than the 122,000 arrested in 2007 and a huge spike over the 45,000 arrested in 2004, according to interior ministry figures.
The problem is compounded by Turkey's refusal to readmit migrants that crossed into Greece from its territory despite a protocol signed between Athens and Ankara in 2001, the ministry says.