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.
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A bilateral accord requires Turkey to take back migrants who pass through its territory before entering Greece. But Turkey has done so only in 2,200 out of 64,000 such cases in the last few years, according to the Greek government.Skip to next paragraph
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At the same time, asylum-seekers are now required under EU rules to make their claims in the EU country where they land first, whether they want to stay there or not. Greece, which approves less than 1 percent of asylum claims, has a backlog of some 70,000 cases waiting to be decided.
"The well is full," says Konstantinos Bitsios, secretary general of the Ministry of Interior. "The quantity of asylum-seekers and illegal immigrants entering the country is of such a great number that we're unable to cope."
Greece and other southern European countries have suggested the EU set up regional holding centers for migrants elsewhere in Europe, work out a common resettlement plan, and allow asylum-seekers to make their claims in the country best able to handle them. But Mr. Bitsios says they have gotten little more than sympathy so far.
The dilemma facing the EU, according to refugee advocates and government officials, is how to set up decent facilities for illegal migrants without encouraging more of them to come.
France, for example, has its own Patras-like situation near Calais, the commercial port on the northern coast serving ships going to England. An ad-hoc migrant camp of several hundred people, known locally as the jungle, has sprouted along the beach.
Last week, the French immigration minister, Eric Besson, said the camp had become a hub for smuggling rings and would be cleared by the end of the year.
He offered government subsidies for food kitchens, legal aid, and portable showers in the Calais area. But France would not permit another Sangatte, Mr. Besson said, referring to the formal migrant holding center that was run by the Red Cross near Calais and served some 28,000 migrants until it was shut down in 2002.
A continent's laws vs. individual will
In Patras, with an estimated 4,000 migrants living in the makeshift Afghan camp and in tents along the roadside, the illegal immigration problem seems even more entrenched.
Up to 1,500 ships and ferries leave the port for Italy daily, and migrant-smuggling has become a major issue. "We're trying to contain the problem," says Captain Athanasios Athanasopoulos, the head of the Patras coast guard. "But it's difficult, and I don't know if it's even feasible."
The migrants, who may have paid smugglers up to $10,000 to get to Greece, keep trying to leave because they find themselves at a procedural dead end.
"All [an illegal immigrant here] has is a paper saying, 'Get out of my country,'" says Nikos Koblas, an immigration lawyer in Patras. "But there is no way for him to get out of the country."
At the camp, many of the migrants say they would keep trying to get out no matter what.
"This place is fine, I have friends here, but we don't want to stay in Greece," says Ali Hussain Hazara, a wiry Afghan in rubber flip-flops and a mismatched track suit.
He says he has tried repeatedly to sneak onto an outbound truck at the port in hopes of eventually joining some cousins in London. "There are ways," says Mr. Hazara, squatting calmly by the metal container that serves as the camp's makeshift mosque, "and I will find one."