Escaping to Europe, immigrants get caught in Greece

1st January 2009, Comments 0 comments

Camps such as the one in Patras, where huts are made of dirty pieces of garbage, have gradually been established over the past few years to accommodate fleeing immigrants.

Athens -- The assassination of his father by Taliban militants forced 13-year-old Jahid to escape his home in Afghanistan.

But his long perilous journey toward asylum in Europe has left him and thousands others trapped for months in a makeshift camp in Greece's western port city of Patras.

Dumbfounded by the government's neglect and the European Union's tough immigration policies, Jahid's future lies in limbo.

Camps such as the one in Patras, where huts are made of dirty pieces of garbage, cardboard and plastic, have gradually been established over the past few years to accommodate immigrants from Central Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The immigrants make endless attempts to stow away aboard a ferry bound for Italy, believing they have better chances of asylum and finding work there.

Patras officials say the number of immigrants living in makeshift camps by the port, waiting to sneak into a truck and onto a ship, now exceeds 4,000 and that the camps are no longer manageable. The refugees are forbidden to stay in Greece, but are prevented from leaving.

Human rights groups say the situation is getting worse and illustrates the growing turmoil within the European Union and its policy on migrants.

"I had thought that the worst was over after traveling by foot and bus through Iran and Turkey and then sailing in a small boat in rough seas to get to Greece," said Jahid, amid a row of dirty shacks in what Patras residents refer to as the Afghani shantytown.

"Now, after being stuck here for six months I think that this is the real nightmare because I am trapped - where can I go? It has gotten really difficult to sneak onto a truck to Italy and those that get lucky often get caught by the Italians and get sent back here," says Jahid pulling out his 30-day expulsion order, written in Greek.

Sitting at the crossroads of three continents, Greece has become the main transit point for immigrants seeking entry into the European Union. The number of illegal immigrants arriving in the country has surged over the past year.

Alexandros Zavos from the Hellenic Migration Policy Institute estimates that 120,000 will be picked up sneaking into Greece in 2008, more than five times as many as five years ago.

"I believe that in the past few years the EU has began to understand the magnitude of the problem. These immigrants do not come here with the purpose of staying in Greece because their goal is to go somewhere else in Europe and at some point this will happen," Zavos said, adding "we cannot continue to stop them here."

The problem is shared by the dozens of Greek islands bordering Turkey.

According to Stylianos Thanos, the deputy mayor of Samos, more than 8,000 migrants made their way to the tiny island in 2008. The island's new migration detention center regularly has more than double its 300-person capacity.

Meanwhile on the nearby island of Patmos and Agathonisi officials have blocked their ports, arguing that would-be immigrants abandoned by smugglers have exceeded the number of permanent residents on the island.

Tensions are also on the rise between right-wing groups and the rising migrant population in central Athens. Residents in the central district of Aghos Pentelimonas say they are afraid to leave their homes because of the rising crime.

Despite a 2002 bilateral accord between Athens and Ankara, under which Turkey is required to accept the return of all would-be immigrants from Greece, only a small percentage are returned.

"Of the more than 25,000 people Greece can prove crossed over from Turkey, only 1,600 have been accepted back -- Turkey is not cooperating at all," says Zavos.

Lacking clean water and electricity, skin and respiratory diseases are widespread at the camp, says doctor Nikos Moulkiotis.

Ahmet arrived from his hometown of Herat six months ago, paying 3,000 dollars for the arduous journey. "I just want a job, legal papers and home so that I can live - nothing else."

Refugee advocates and human rights groups, such as New-York-based Human Rights Watch, have slammed Greece for its treatment of migrants, accusing the country of illegally deporting migrants and often misleading them about their right to apply for asylum.

Last year fewer than 1 percent of the 25,000 people who applied for asylum from the Greek government were successful, far below rates of 18 percent in Germany, 11 percent in Italy and 4 percent in Spain.

In April, the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR called on European Union states to stop sending would-be migrants back to Greece as its record in handling asylum seekers is too poor. EU asylum rules say refugees must file asylum applications in the EU country in which they entered the bloc.

The UNHCR says asylum seekers arriving in Greece are often denied basic rights, including interpreters and legal aid and conditions in immigrant detention centers are appalling.

Earlier this summer, MSF denounced Greece of detaining hundreds of illegal immigrants in cramped and squalid conditions at a reception center on the Mediterranean island of Lesvos, without proper sanitation and medical care.

Human rights groups say a new EU pact on Immigration and Asylum, approved in the fall, may worsen rather than improve the illegal migration situation, by putting more focus on regulating immigration flows.

Greek officials have appealed to the European Union for more help in patrolling its border and coping with the growing influx of asylum seekers and economic migrants. The new agreement, however, appears to leave each country on its own to cope.

Christine Pirovolaki/DPA/Expatica

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