It’s a shame Greece isn’t going to put up that big wall after all. A 206-km fence along its entire land border to Turkey would have been better. Better for the Greeks, whose small, overindebted and disorganised country is utterly unable to cope with all the refugees pouring in. Perhaps even better for the refugees themselves, who are generally in for an extremely inhumane reception in Greece. Possibly better even for us other Europeans, because it would have forced us to face up to our own smug mendacity.

But Athens, apparently intimidated by condemnations from every side, has decided to back down. Now they plan to construct a relatively short fence only 12.5 km long and three metres high. It is to run along the Evros river, which is easy to swim and across which most of the illegal immigrants to Greece came in 2010. It doesn’t take a crystal ball to predict that the refugee smugglers will soon find ways around this short stretch of fence.

Stuffing refugees in overflowing camps

Which means things will continue as before: with searchlights, blue lights, loudspeaker announcements and even warning shots, Greek border guards will continue trying to keep unwanted guests out of the country. Even if it means, as the human rights organisation Pro Asyl reports, panic-stricken refugees running straight into the minefields that were laid back in the days of Greco-Turkish enmity. To lend them a hand, other EU countries have dispatched 175 border police equipped with guard dogs, nightscopes and helicopters. Frontex, the EU External Borders Agency, has just prolonged their mission there to March.

But for all that, 200-odd refugees sneak across the border every day, estimates the Greek government. In fact 80% of all illegal immigrants to the EU enter via Greece, mainly Iraqis, Iranians and Afghans, but also people from Africa and the Far East who pay smugglers thousands of euros to bring them into Europe. Most of them have no intention of remaining in Greece, but are looking for a way into the richer countries of Northern and Western Europe. But EU law is unequivocal: under the Dublin II Regulation, the country a refugee first arrives in is responsible for handling his asylum application.

So the Greeks keep stuffing more and more refugees in the already overflowing camps, which are sometimes so cramped that people don’t even have enough room to lie down to sleep. Nor are there enough toilets to go round: Greek police have actually had to take refugees into the fields to relieve themselves there. Medical care, legal counselling, interpreters – none of that is available in the Greek camps. A "humanitarian crisis situation that should not occur in the EU”, says the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. In 2010, out of 30,000 asylum seekers, the Greek authorities recognised only 11 as being in need of asylum.

German public have made things easy for themselves

The conditions are so appalling that courts in England, Norway and the Netherlands have stopped sending refugees back to Athens. Even the German Constitutional Court has called a halt to the deportations. In so doing, the judges display more decency and discernment than the politicians: the German, French and British interior ministers have jointly sabotaged every attempt to reform the Dublin Regulation. The EU Commission couldn’t even get asylum seekers to be temporarily taken in elsewhere when a member state is faced with a massive surge of refugees. The reason is that the existing rules are extremely advantageous to the rich EU countries in the middle of Europe. The numbers of asylum seekers in Germany have now dwindled to less than one-tenth of the figures in the early 1990s.

So the German public have made things easy for themselves in matters of asylum. Immigrants who make it all the way here in spite of the formidable obstacles are treated more or less decently. But we don’t even want to know how the ones fare who get stuck long before reaching our borders. We close our eyes so as not to see what happens to the refugees who are prevented by Libya, at Italy’s behest, from crossing the Mediterranean.

The Greek wall might have rattled our complacency. We wouldn’t have been able to overlook the eyesore of a long high border fence running right across ancient Thrace. Fortress Europe? It’s already here – and has been for some time.

Translated from the German by Eric Rosencrantz