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At Europe's doorway, a Greek city grapples with growing illegal immigrant problem

Afghan immigrants often make their way to Patras, where they become entangled in EU asylum laws.

By Susan SachsCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 29, 2009

Patras, Greece

For thousands of immigrants, the road into Europe passes through a foul-smelling squatters' camp that has sprouted in the heart of this busy port city.

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The shantytown is laid out in an orderly grid of plastic-wrapped shacks thrown together from old boards and recovered detritus from construction sites. Chickens scrabble in the dirt, satellite dishes poke from tin roofs, and pilfered water feeds an open-air communal shower.

As many as 2,000 Afghan men and boys live in the camp at any one time, part of a wave of migrants who flock to Patras in hopes of stowing away on one of the trucks loaded onto Italy-bound ships and ferries.

Day and night, they converge on the port, a 10-minute walk from the shantytown. Some sprint after the trucks as they pass through the gates, trying to latch onto the doors or crawl into the wheel wells. Others wait for smugglers to spirit them onboard to hide among the crates, in cold-storage containers, or in stuffy hidden compartments.

Until recently, Greek authorities have largely ignored the camp, never sending police into its trash-clogged alleyways. But last week, Interior Minister Prokopis Pavlopoulos said the sanitary and security situation there had become untenable. He vowed to raze the camp and lock migrants in an old military barracks outside the city before the summer tourist season begins.

Even if that happens, Patras is likely to remain a magnet for the influx of illegal migrants that Greece does not want and cannot manage, according to government officials, human rights groups, and refugee advocates. The city is the most dramatic example of the bottlenecks created by the European Union's (EU) attempt to enforce common immigration controls.

"You can't keep them away. They come back," says Alexandros Zavos, president of the Hellenic Migration Policy Institute, a think tank in Athens. "What can you do? Build more jails, more camps, camps for 200,000 people? That's unimaginable."

Countries, immigrants bound by complicated asylum laws

Greece, like its Mediterranean neighbors, has been inundated in the past three years with migrants seeking refuge or work, the result of a shift in people-smuggling routes from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East to the coastal countries on the EU's southeastern border.

Last year, more than 146,000 people were arrested for entering the country illegally, a 65 percent increase over 2006. Many more are believed to slip in undetected. The tiny Greek islands closest to Turkey, a major transit country, experienced a 10-fold jump in the number of migrants washing ashore and floundering in leaky boats near their beaches.

The problem, say experts, is that most of these migrants have no desire to stay in Greece. Yet Greece, as their first entry point, is obliged to prevent them from crossing into other EU countries.

Understaffed and overcrowded detention centers can hold illegal migrants for only about three days, according to Greek police. Then they are released, generally with orders to leave the country within 30 days. But in many cases, the deportation orders cannot be enforced.

If migrants claim to be from a country at war like Afghanistan or Iraq, as do many of those entering Greece, they are not supposed to be sent home.