GREECE STRUGGLES TO CURB INFLUX OF ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS
Greece is struggling to curb an influx of illegal immigrants, particularly from Iraq and Afghanistan, many believed to be heading to Western Europe.
The Aegean island of Samos has seen illegal arrivals increase at least threefold this year, exceeding 3,600 and prompting the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner this week to demand the closure of the "horribly overcrowded" migrant reception center. The government responded, saying a new center would open on Samos at the end of the month followed by five units on other islands including the popular tourist destinations of Rhodes, Lesvos and Evia.
The Samos unit - one of Greece's three main migrant detention centers - has received the largest influx of Iraqis, Afghans and Palestinians, the police say. There are also more arrivals from Africa, chiefly Somalia - a sign that routes to Italy and Spain are proving more arduous.
They are not the only illegal visitors seeking protection, work or the first step into prosperous Western Europe.
The police said 69,845 illegal immigrants were detained from January to August, a 45 percent increase from last year. Over half came from Albania - the continuation of a steady rise since the collapse of the Eastern bloc. But the sharpest increase was in arrivals from strife-torn states, with 7,562 Iraqis and 5,271 Afghans intercepted. We are under increasing pressure," said Constantinos Kordatos, head of the police's immigration unit. He added that the number eluding arrest was "impossible to determine."
The trend is in sharp contrast to other Mediterranean countries such as Spain and Italy. Spain detained 9,717 illegal immigrants between January and September, less than half those stopped in the same period last year, according to the International Organization for Migration. Italy detained 10,062, down 30 percent. Both countries attribute the declines to stricter border checks and cooperation with migrants' countries of origin like Senegal and Morocco.
Greece's biggest increase in illegal traffic has been through its land and sea borders with Turkey, according to Frontex, the European Union agency that oversees border security. Officials on Samos and Lesvos have been besieged with almost daily boatloads of migrants.
Many are thrown overboard by traffickers evading authorities. Forty-eight drowned this year. Migrants crossing the land mine-riddled region of Evros, near Turkey's land border, face similar risks. "Many are killed or maimed," said Daniel Esdras, head of the Greek office of the International Organization for Migration.
Thousands claim to be from Iraq and Afghanistan but rarely have documents. So rights groups have called for better "screening" of migrants' origins. "Many Kurds from Turkey declare Iraqi citizenship to get political asylum," Esdras said. "Migrants needing asylum don't always understand how to seek it due to a shortage of translators," said Giorgos Tsarbopoulos, director of the Greek office of the UN refugee agency. A new government leaflet explaining asylum rights and procedures in six languages is expected to help.
Migrant groups say Greece should imitate a screening project operating on Italian island of Lampedusa. "Projects on Samos and Evros could tackle the tide from Turkey," Esdras said. Island authorities say Turkey is ignoring a bilateral pact for repatriating illegal immigrants. "They don't want to stop fleeing migrants who are at best poor, at worst criminals," said the chief of the Lesvos Port Authority, Apostolos Mikrolimanos, who told local reporters that Turkish officials were aiding traffickers.
Cooperation with Albania is difficult, too.
"There are more promises than action," said Ilias Dodis, deputy police chief in Ioannina, near the Albanian border. Arresting trafficking suspects, who earn at least €2,000, or $2,800 per migrant, is difficult "as they are more organized." Harder still is getting convictions as it must be proven that money has exchanged hands.
Greece's frontier with Albania is "one of Europe's worst-affected external land borders," said Michal Parzysek, .a spokesman for Frontex, the EU border control agency. He said patrols of the Albanian and Italian coasts had created "a new wave of Europe-bound migrants across the land border."
It is unclear how many migrants continue their journey westward. Detentions at the port of Patras, Greece's main gateway to Western Europe, have more than doubled this year.
"They are chiefly Afghans, Albanians and Iraqis heading for Sweden and Germany," said a Patras official, Georgios Fouyias. Sweden this year processed the most refugee asylum claims in Europe while Greece has the EU's lowest "refugee recognition rate."