SAMOS, Greece – The Associated Press
Greece's waters and mountains has become Europe's primary gateway for illegal immigration: Nearly half of European Union's illegal immigrants are detected at the nation's land or sea borders. Greece says it detained more than 146,000 illegal immigrants in 2008, a 30 percent increase from the previous year and a 54 percent jump from 2006
Afghan migrants lineup during a police operation in a camp in Patras. AFP photo.
By day, this lush island set in the Aegean Sea offers a sanctuary to tourists seeking clear blue seas and immaculate beaches. After nightfall, a grimmer reality takes hold. Bodies sometimes wash ashore at daybreak. Human traffickers ply the waters off the coast. Patrol boats set off in pursuit of dinghies crammed with desperate migrants.
Greece's islands welcome millions of visitors every year, but they are also increasingly playing host to newcomers of a more unwelcome variety: undocumented laborers from Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
In fact Greece's waters and mountains had become Europe's primary gateway for illegal immigration: Nearly half of European Union's illegal immigrants were detected at the nation's land or sea borders. Greece said it detained more than 146,000 illegal immigrants in 2008, a 30 percent increase from the previous year and a 54 percent jump from 2006. Greece now has the highest number of illegal entries in the EU, followed by Italy and Spain, EU authorities said.
On Samos alone, immigrants arrive at an average rate of 25 a day - a six-fold increase over the past two years - crossing by dinghy, jet-ski, or even swimming against fast sea currents. "This very serious problem has got worse ... We fear that the numbers of illegal crossings will go up even more," Samos Police Chief Panagiotis Kordonouris said. "We don't have time to deal with any other police activities."
A detention center built two years ago was already working at double capacity, now housing 500 people, Kordonouris said. Elsewhere, the problem was even more acute. The United Nations refugee agency complained to the government last week about conditions on the island of Lesvos, where it said 850 people, including 200 unaccompanied children, were being detained in "cramped and unsanitary conditions."
Shortly afterward, more than 300 people - about a third of them children - were released from detention there, and arrived at a port near Athens Wednesday, forcing charities to scramble for temporary accommodation. On top of the sheer volume of migrants seeking a foothold in Europe through Greek waters, authorities are contending with increasingly ruthless, and sometimes ingenious, tactics by the smugglers who bring them in.
Coast guard officials said human traffickers tell migrants to tear up their identity documents so they can pose as asylum seekers from war-zones: most of the foreigners who turn up in Samos said they are from Afghanistan, Somalia or the Palestinian territories. The main sea route is from Turkey to the EU shores of Greek islands as close as a couple kilometers away.
"We are people, they are people - and we try to save them," said Partsafas. "It's difficult work." He said Turkish smugglers typically charge each immigrant $1,400 for the boat ride to Greece. They work with "facilitators" living in Greece, who try to keep the immigrants hidden from police and buy them batches of ferry tickets to the mainland, Samos coast guard chief Stylianos Partsafas said.
The crisis had prompted the EU to send urgent help to overwhelmed local authorities - one of the biggest projects of Frontex, the bloc's new border agency based in Warsaw, Poland. Members of the multinational team sent by Frontex describe the unusual challenges of fighting increasingly sophisticated smuggling operations.
Visiting officers from Frontex have arrest powers and can even carry guns. Twenty EU countries are currently helping Greece with personnel and equipment, Frontex spokeswoman Izabella Cooper said. They include translators and officers trained in recognizing the facial features of different ethnic groups. Greek coast guard patrols use radar, satellite navigation, and sophisticated night-vision equipment, helped by army observation posts on Samos' mountains, in their efforts to stop the clandestine boats.
Immigrants typically held for several months and then released with a formal order to leave the country in three weeks. But many end up staying. Often, they end up living in crowded apartments in Athens and other cities, often in squalid conditions, generating fears of a social crisis with unemployment rising and Greece on the brink of recession.