A Rising Tide of Migrants Unsettles Athens

Niki Kitsantonis, International Herald Tribune, October 2, 2008

About 80,000 migrants have traveled to Greece this year and decided to stay illegally, according to the authorities, who say the country can no longer handle the task of guarding the European Union’s southeast flank.

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The historic center of Athens has been riven by several street battles in recent months, involving what the police characterize as rival groups, often involved in dealing drugs, from Afghanistan, Iraq and war-torn African countries wielding swords, axes and machetes.

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The unrest in Athens has triggered a backlash from the far-right party Laos [“the People”], whose popularity has jumped to 5.4 percent in opinion polls from 3.5 percent when it entered Parliament a year ago.

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When the people of Patmos blocked a group of refugees landing on their island last Sunday, they raised questions about both refugees and about Greece that have not gone away.

The people of Patmos, an island of 2,984 that lies 220 km east of Athens, close to the border with Turkey, had decided two weeks earlier, with the support of local authorities, not to let any refugees ashore.

They acted on that decision when they gathered at the port, led by the mayor, against a group of 133 irregular migrants, mostly women and children from Iraq and Afghanistan. The refugees had earlier crossed over from Turkey to the Greek island Agathonisi which has a population of just 80.

In line with common practice, the traffickers destroyed the boats that brought them, in order to prevent the Greek naval police sending their boats back.

This group of refugees stayed on in Agathonisi, that lacks necessary provisions and infrastructure, until their transfer to Patmos, the closest island with a police department. But this time the refusal by the people of Patmos to accept them brought almost a humanitarian crisis.

Evagelos Kottoros, representative of the community in Agathonisi, described the situation to Kathimerini newspaper.

“More are arriving constantly with so many children. Patmos will not accept them, I have been speaking with the authorities and I do not know what is going to happen. There is no food left to give them, not even dry clothes. I do not know what to do. They spent the previous night in the community’s warehouse. I am afraid we will not manage another night.”

Minister for the Interior Prokopis Pavlopoulos had to intervene before authorities directed the migrants to Leros, another island some miles further south of Patmos.

But the decision by Patmos residents raises questions about the legality of the measures undertaken, and their consequences.

George Mastropetros, head of the Patmos municipal council, acknowledged to IPS in a telephone interview that their decision was a harsh measure that bypasses legal procedures.

“But you have to understand that this is the last measure available left to us to protect the viability of our community which depends only on tourism. Patmos is left without infrastructure and has a very small police force in order to provide even the basics for these people. As a result they survive in disgraceful conditions around the port until they manage to leave for Athens.”

Mastropetros said the local community opposes the establishment of a detention centre on the island. Many other islands do not want to host such centres.

A big increase in migrant arrivals this year has overstretched the capacity of many Greek islands. Mastropetros said 4,500 people have arrived in Patmos since January, 700 during the first week of September.

Leros has accepted 2,600 since the beginning of the year, about 2,000 already more than last year.

The deteriorating situation exposes the lack of a coherent policy in Greece to deal with the increasing migration flows directed by smugglers and corrupted Turkish officials towards Greek islands.

Last month Greek newspapers published pictures of Turkish naval police vessels landing migrants on an islet in Greek waters.

Both countries share a vast naval frontier, and activists accuse each of unofficially pushing migrants to the other side. Greek officials often turn a blind eye to issues raised by local communities, indirectly transferring responsibility to local people.

“At least they could offer us the administrative capacity to deal with it,” Mastropetros said. “Nobody is happy that these people have to suffer like that. We have been accepting illegal migrants on the island and helped them for 15 years already, and so I believe that accusing us of xenophobic behaviour is at the least unfair.”

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