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.
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.
He is smiling now, though. In his hands is a ticket for the 5:30 Express Pegasus – a ferry to Athens –a bag of women's clothing he is carrying for another released detainee, and a deportation order giving him a month to leave Greece. He has little intention of going.
Abraham says he went from the Horn of Africa, across the Sahara desert, to Libya. From there, he traveled by boat to Turkey, where he hid with other migrants until they could find a vessel to take them to Greece. The final crossing cost him $1,500.
Anna Triandafyllidou of Eliamep, an Athens-based think tank, says most migrants passing through the Aegean Islands have been from Asia and the Middle East, and that the adoption of the route by Africans may be evidence they are finding the traditional routes to Spain and Italy increasingly difficult.
For officials on Samos, determining a migrant's country of origin is nearly impossible. Many claim to be from Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and other war-torn lands. Human rights groups say many are probably legitimate asylum seekers who are often discouraged from applying for refugee status. Those who do apply face the lowest acceptance rates in Europe – just 0.6 percent. Most are treated as illegals, but since Greece has nowhere to send them, they are released with deportation orders that few expect will be honored. "It's a vicious cycle," says Victoria Banti-Markouti, refugee coordinator for the Greek office of Amnesty International. "They're illegal ... and every policeman is able to catch them, so they go through a cycle of arrest and release."
Local officials blame Turkey, saying it doesn't do enough to police its borders and crack down on people-trafficking. Turkey has agreed to take back illegal migrants passing through its borders, but in practice accepts few.
Most of the migrants seem to know this, officials say, and many head straight for the detention center when they arrive on the island, knowing that they will eventually be released and can disappear into the informal economy.
"We'll go to Athens and see," says Abraham's friend Hailezgi who also said he was from Somalia, but at first couldn't remember the name of the city. "If it's OK, we'll stay."
[Editor's note: The original version of the sub-headline should have stated that, a decade ago, most
illegal migrants to Greece as a whole were from Eastern Europe.]
ATHENS – Just weeks after a spate of deadly fires killed at least 65 people, Greeks went to the polls Sunday to elect a new government. Early exit polls indicated that voter disillusionment – fueled in part by the government's handling of the fires – had stripped support from the conservative New Democracy party, which appeared to maintain a slim parliamentary majority. Socialist PASOK, the country's main opposition, was also predicted to lose seats. Smaller parties on the left and right showed gains, including the nationalist LAOS party, which appeared to win enough votes to enter parliament for the first time. Analysts say the narrowed majority may frustrate New Democracy's reform agenda in key areas like education and the economy.