Greek Immigration Crisis Spawns Shanty Towns and Squats

Greek immigration crisis spawns shanty towns and squats

Greece's inability to tackle a crisis in illegal immigration has left thousands living in shanty towns and squatting in the heart of Athens.

By Nick Squires and Paul Anast in Athens
The Telegraph (UK)
Published: 7:00AM BST 07 Sep 2009

Tens of thousands of migrants from Africa, Asia and the Middle East attempt to cross by boat to Greece's Aegean islands each year, with many ending up in squalid camps.

Humanitarian groups have condemned the situation as “shocking”.

While the country trades on an image of carefree summer holidays, sun-kissed sandy beaches and being the cradle of Western civilization, its picturesque holiday destinations and historic capital have become tainted by the crisis.

Such is the scale of the problem that the country has become Europe's main gateway for illegal immigration, accounting for nearly half of those trying to reach the European Union.

Many migrants try to scrape a living as street hawkers in Greece's big cities before heading to the port of Patras where they seek to smuggle themselves on lorries bound for ferries sailing to Italian ports.

Others have crammed into abandoned buildings in central Athens, just a few blocks from the Acropolis, generating fears of a social crisis as Greece teeters on the brink of recession.

“The Greek capital has become a landfill of human misery and cannot absorb any more illegal immigrants,” said Yannis Sgouros, the prefect of Athens.

While the government has ordered raids on the shanty towns and cleared out some occupied buildings in the capital this summer, Greece's failure to tackle the problem sooner has led to a spate of violent attacks against immigrants by hate groups, and a surge of support for an ultranationalist political party.

Its vulnerability to trafficking, due in part to the difficulty of patrolling the seas around its islands, has made it the soft underbelly of Europe for the traffickers and those seeking to make their way to Britain and other western European nations illegally.

In May, riot police had to break up clashes between far-Right extremists who attacked hundreds of North African immigrant squatters living in an old courthouse in the heart of Athens, a few blocks from one of its main squares. Last month police evicted around 600 immigrants from the courthouse.

But a hotel off one of the city's main squares has subsequently been taken over by migrants. The police have admitted that the area had become a nest of drug dealers, prostitutes and petty criminals.

In July the authorities also razed a shanty town in the western port of Patras where hundreds of mostly Afghan migrants lived, hoping to travel by ferry to Italy.

Welfare groups condemned the bulldozing of the camp, which had been constructed from scrap metal and wood and even had its own mosque, as “barbaric”. But the port remains a key exit point for migrants hoping to continue their journey westwards and the efforts of the Greek authorities have failed to stop the country being a magnet for those seeking entry to other EU countries.

The main route for immigrants is from neighbouring Turkey in places the two countries are separated by just a mile of open water.

Greece says it detained more than 146,000 illegal immigrants in 2008, a 30 per cent increase from the previous year and 54 per cent up on 2006.

But it now has the highest number of illegal entries each year in the EU, followed by Italy and Spain.

In an attempt to stop clandestine boats from landing on Greek soil, coast guard patrols use radar, satellite navigation, and sophisticated night-vision equipment, backed up by army observation posts on mountain tops.

But even when boat people are detected, they are typically held for several months and then released with a formal order to leave the country in three weeks.

Many end up staying, slipping beneath the authorities' radar and taking casual jobs in a desperate attempt to raise enough money to get to other parts of the EU, often Italy.

Last week the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said its staff were “shocked” at the conditions of a detention centre on the island of Lesbos. UNHCR staff said one room housed over 150 women and 50 babies, many suffering from illness related to the cramped and unsanitary conditions.

“The situation is indicative of broader problems relating to irregular migration and Greece's asylum system,” said a UNHCR spokesman in Geneva.

Conditions in official detention centres and makeshift shanty camps are now so bad that some Afghan refugees believe they are better off back in their war-torn country and have agreed to be flown home, said Asan Sukuri, the president of an Afghan community association known.

The Greek government has defended its record, saying it is being overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of migrants and cannot cope.

With 16,000 miles of coastline, authorities say it is impossible to block migrants reaching Greek soil.

Dora Bacoyannis, the foreign minister, said: “The pressure from illegal immigration has become unbearable from the eastern Aegean”.


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