Greek isle struggles with illegal influx
A boatload of migrants – mostly from Asia and Africa – arrives almost daily
in Samos, at a time when other European countries on the Mediterranean have seen a sharp drop in the number of illegals arriving by boat.
Lt. Christos Kosteidis shook his head as the sleek hydrojet under his command skipped through a narrow strait separating this Greek island from Turkey. It had been a busy 24 hours for the Samos Coast Guard.Skip to next paragraph
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The previous night, a crew intercepted a boat with more than 20 illegal immigrants. That morning, as they approached an inflatable raft carrying 22 people, a man slashed the boat with a knife, forcing the Coast Guard to rescue the passengers and bring them to this outpost of Europe.
"They're desperate," Lieutenant. Kosteidis says. "They'll try anything."
This summer, migrants have made the perilous, nighttime journey from Turkey to Samos at a rate of nearly one boatload a day. Other European countries on the Mediterranean have seen sharp decreases this summer in the number of illegal migrants arriving by boat – after a record-breaking 2006 – but Samos is experiencing a rising tide, which may be evidence that traffickers are simply changing their routes.
"We've been overwhelmed," says Panagiotis Tsiafidis, director of police, who oversees an overcrowded detention center. "The idea from these migrants coming from war-torn countries is that Greece is a sort of paradise."
For decades, Greece was an emigrant country that sent tens of thousands to America, Canada, and Australia. Today, it is a destination for those fleeing war or poverty. The first and largest influx was economic migrants from Albania, followed by other Eastern Europeans. Over the past decade, the country's Aegean Islands have become a crossing point for thousands of Asians and Africans. In 2006, the Greek Ministry of Mercantile Marine reports, they caught some 3,500 illegal immigrants in the Aegean.
Samos is on the front line of this new migration. This island of scenic beaches and cafe-lined ports – population 35,000 – gets 200,000 foreign visitors each year. But in recent years, thousands of uninvited visitors have arrived on rubber dinghies and small wooden boats.
Last year, says Mr. Tsiafidis, 1,580 illegal immigrants were detained; in the first eight months of this year, 2,641 were. Though it's seen as one of the safest illegal crossings, officials say at least 31 people have drowned this year.
Once migrants do reach Samos, they are hard to send home. They are housed in an old factory intended to hold 150 people. At times, the center holds more than 300 people, including women and children held with men, a violation of international law.
Locked away for weeks or months while authorities try to determine their true identities, the migrants share two bathrooms and sleep on the floor. A recent delegation of members of the European Parliament called the center "squalid, deplorable, and inhumane."
But on the outskirts of Vathy, Samos's main town, a complex of barbed wire and prefabricated buildings is rising. The $4 million detention center is expected to open later this year and house 300-plus people. It has a playground and basketball court and separate living areas for men and women – but would be bursting from the start.
A thin young man named Abraham, who says he is from Somalia, spent 17 days in the old center. "There was much crowding of people," he says.