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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

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