Greek Islands, Overwhelmed By Refugees, Seek Help

Greek islands, overwhelmed by refugees, seek help

By Anthee Carassava
International Herald Tribune
Published: May 7, 2008

ATHENS: A rash of refugees from Africa, southern Asia and the Middle East has been crossing the Aegean Sea and besieging a cluster of craggy Greek islands.

Local officials have called for the central government to declare a state of emergency on the tiny island of Leros, after the Greek coast guard picked up more than 200 refugees, half of them minors, over the weekend.

The immigrants, Pakistanis, Ethiopians, Iraqis and Somalis, said they had reached Greece by boat from Turkey.

Some were sent to reception centers across the country, while others were released after requesting political asylum, the authorities said.

“The problem now is who takes care of the minors,” said Chrysoula Sifouniou, deputy prefect of the Dodecanese, a group of islands dotting the Aegean's southeast flank near the Turkish coast. “We don't have the infrastructure to cope with them, not even a single reception center for them. There's no state plan or strategy in place to deal with these cases.”

Many immigrants use Greece as a transit point to other European countries. Greece, as one of the European Union's easternmost countries, has increasingly become a gateway for people fleeing conflict in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan.

The authorities in Greece detained 112,364 illegal immigrants in 2007, three times the number in 2004.

The Greek coast guard stepped up patrols in the Aegean last weekend, while local officials expressed concern about the number of minors being ferried illegally to Greek shores.

“This is a new trend we've noticed in recent months,” Sifouniou said. “It has left us baffled and confused, because we neither have the expertise nor the infrastructure to deal with this problem on a local level.”

Concerned islanders and church officials have offered to aid the children, and some hotel owners have offered to house them.

But with the first wave of tourists expected in the region by early June, hoteliers are expected to evict the minors to take in paying guests.

“It's pathetic,” Sifouniou said. “The state has to step in and take control of this situation.”

Criticism of Greece was already mounting for its treatment of immigrants and for turning down applicants for political asylum. Last month, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said the Greek system was so flawed that other European countries should not return asylum seekers to Greece.

Officials in Athens have denied the United Nations accusations, contending that Greece, one of the European Union's smallest and poorest nations, should not be saddled with the union's immigration responsibilities.