Ailing Greece Struggles With an Influx of Illegal Migrants

Joanna Kakissis, Time, December 17, 2010

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{snip} So far this year, more than 90% of illegal migrants to Europe have entered through Greece, according to Frontex, the E.U.’s border-patrol agency. Until recently, Italy, France and Spain were the most popular entry points for illegal immigration into the continent. But increased coast-guard patrols in the past couple of years have blocked routes by sea, forcing migrants to find a new way in. “Smugglers were being arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned, so criminal networks shifted their route to this area around Orestiada,” says Frontex spokesman Michal Parzyszek.

Alarmed by the sudden influx of illegal migrants pouring into Greece, the E.U. sent Frontex forces to Orestiada in November to help Greek police patrol an especially troublesome eight-mile (13 km) section of the 128-mile (200 km) land border between Greece and Turkey. Some 31,400 people crossed just that portion of the border in the first nine months of 2010 — more than the number of illegal crossings through all of the Canary Islands in 2006, a peak year for immigration to Spain.

Frontex says almost half of the migrants say they’re Afghans, who pay smugglers around $3,000 to help them escape a country where per capita income is only $900. But for Jamir Khan, 22, it wasn’t money that sent him to Greece — it was war. The skinny, tough car mechanic from Laghman province in eastern Afghanistan — a place he describes as “all fight, all the time” — learned his trade in Manchester, England, where he lived illegally for a few months about four years ago.

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The journey to Orestiada is not without its dangers. Scores have died crossing the border from Turkey over the years, many while trying to get to the other side of the Evros River. According to Frontex, at least 44 migrants have drowned there this year. {snip}

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Though most migrants go to Europe through Greece with the hopes of traveling on to countries like Sweden or Britain, where jobs and benefits are more plentiful, many run out of money and find themselves trapped in Athens. That’s what happened to Tahar Zarouk, a 33-year-old Tunisian from the southeastern city of Medenine. He subsists on a free daily meal of soup, salad and bread prepared by the capital’s Greek, Anglican and African churches. The food is distributed in a drab courtyard on Sophocleous Street, a drag in central Athens infested with drug dealers. He sleeps in a nearby alley and says he’s been beaten up several times by anti-immigrant thugs. Standing in a food line on a damp December day, Zarouk says he’s desperate to work. “Every day, Greeks tell me to leave,” he says. “But I have no money. Where am I supposed to go?”

Others wait in Athens for asylum that will likely never come. The U.N. says Greece has more than 52,000 asylum requests waiting to be processed. Only 0.3% of those applications are granted, compared with an average of 31% in Britain, France, Germany and Sweden, the U.N. says.

Jobless and often homeless, migrants face increasing hostility from Greeks despairing over the country’s rising unemployment. Supporters of the far-right, anti-immigrant group Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn) regularly trawl through some central Athens neighborhoods brandishing clubs and beating up homeless migrants. In a troubling sign that relations between Greeks and migrants are souring further, Athenians elected Chrysi Avgi’s president to the city’s municipal council in October. “It’s disillusioning for them, to see the Europe of their dreams be like this,” says Father Jimoh Adebayo, a Nigerian minister who helps at the food line on Sophocleous Street. “They have sold everything back home and they see that here, there is nothing.” Adebayo says he sees more people in the food line every week, including Greeks who have lost homes or jobs.

But Rasha knows none of this as she’s leaving the Fylakio detention center and boarding the bus to Athens with about 80 other migrants. The Greek bus driver wears rubber gloves to handle their tickets; the seats are covered in plastic wrap. Tickets cost 60 euros, or $80, each, but Rasha can pay — she stashed euros left over after paying the smuggler in a money belt she wore under three layers of clothing. “Ali and I will have jobs, maybe at a shop, and we will have a little house, and the baby can sleep,” she says. As the bus pulls away, Rasha waves through a window. She’s the only one smiling.

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