November 7, 2008 / 12:23 AM / 9 years ago

Greece a "prison" for migrants amid EU policy mess

7 Min Read

<p>Immigrants rest inside a camp at southwestern town of Patras September 1, 2008.John Kolesidis</p>

PATRAS, Greece (Reuters) - The West's war against the Taliban drove Khalid Mohamed from his home. But his search for asylum in Europe has left him trapped in a shanty town in Greece, ignored by the government and abused by police.

Greece's western port of Patras has become a frontier for Europe's unwanted migrants. Hundreds of Afghans live crammed into dirty shacks in a slum overlooked by plush apartment blocks, hoping to stow away aboard a ferry bound for Italy, where asylum conditions are easier.

For Mohamed, who fled central Afghanistan last year after losing friends and family in the war, it is a prison camp. He is caught in a limbo without papers or rights: forbidden to stay in Greece but prevented from leaving.

It is a situation human rights campaigners say illustrates a deepening chaos at the heart of EU migration policy.

"We never came here to be in prison. We came to be free," said 28-year-old Mohamed, as his five room-mates huddle around a bubbling hookah. Mohamed, who worked as a UN translator in Afghanistan, has a receipt for his asylum request but has lost hope of being accepted: "Life here's miserable. We've nothing."

Greece is a new frontline for immigration in Europe. As Spain and Italy have cracked down on migrants from the Middle East and Africa, those arrested by Greece rose to 112,000 last year from 40,000 in 2005, many of them from countries at war.

In Patras, Afghan men in dirty T-shirts live in shacks cobbled together from bits of wood and draped in plastic sheets, with a communal shower and no electricity. Skin and respiratory diseases are rife, but going to a hospital risks arrest.

One man has an arm in plaster, another has a bandaged leg: injuries from police beatings, they say. Medical volunteers at the camp say they often treat victims of police abuse, including a man with a broken jaw last week, but the Interior Ministry said it was unaware of any problem.

"These people come thinking Europe is a haven for human rights but we treat them like animals," said Marcella Tommasi, head of a Doctors Without Borders center at Patras.

Greece's treatment of migrants is, says the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, among the toughest in the 27-nation bloc. It accepted just 0.6 per cent of 25,113 asylum applicants in 2007, a disturbingly low rate according to UNHCR.

A new EU pact, approved last month, may worsen the illegal migrants' situation. The brainchild of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the non-binding deal urges states to tighten external borders, increase repatriations and attract skilled migrants.

A separate EU directive allows illegal migrants to be held for up to 18 months. "It's not humane to hold people for 18 months," said Tommasi. "And it won't stop them coming."

Political "Blah Blah"

The European Commission estimates there are up to 8 million illegal migrants among the bloc's 500-million population, with as many as half a million arriving every year.

"EU governments have made it so difficult to hire legal migrants that everyone is being forced down the illegal route," said Martin Baldwin-Edwards, head of the Mediterranean Migration Observatory, who has just finished a report for the Commission.

"The pact insists Europe doesn't need unskilled immigrants, but every country does, especially in southern Europe," he said, citing their importance to the agricultural and service sectors.

Dismissing the EU pact as "political blah blah," Baldwin-Edwards points to its failings: it makes no progress in reaching a common definition of asylum, and does nothing to help millions of migrants living in limbo like Khalid.

<p>An immigrant walks inside a camp at the southwestern town of Patras September 1, 2008.John Kolesidis</p>

Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis has appealed to Greece's European Union partners for more help in coping with the influx of aslyum seekers and economic migrants, but the new agreement leaves the onus on individual governments to cope.

EU asylum rules, called the Dublin Regulation, say would-be refugees must return to where they entered the bloc to make their application, usually border states like Greece and Italy.

"This is an undue burden on countries with external borders," said Yiorgos Tsarbopoulos, local head of UNHCR. "This is not European solidarity."

With one of the highest unemployment rates in the euro zone and a fifth of Greeks living in poverty, the government has higher priorities than migrants' rights, Tsarbopoulos said.

Unable to cope, Greece was breaking the Geneva Convention by routinely rejecting asylum applicants from war zones like Afghanistan, he said. A government spokesman denied this.

Slideshow (2 Images)

Campaigners say Greece ignores its obligation to provide translators at the border for asylum seekers, and conditions in immigrant detention centres are appalling. MSF denounced a "humanitarian crisis" at one center on Lesbos island, where hundreds were badly sickened in October by polluted drinking water.

Ironically, given their harsh treatment, economists say migrants have helped to fuel a decade of growth in Greece.

"Migrants give flexibility to the labor market and lower costs in important sectors like tourism, construction, agriculture and retail," said Nicholas Magginas of National Bank of Greece, adding that they now made up 15 pct of the workforce.

Migrants "Like Ghosts"

Radwan Kharbouche became a campaigner for immigrants' rights in Greece after he lost both his legs and the use of one arm when he was blown up by a mine crossing the border from Turkey in 2002. He says he had to flee to Italy to receive aid and asylum, but has returned to Greece to seek justice.

"Greece is the worst government in Europe for migrants. They knew about my case but they did nothing," said the 29-year-old Moroccan, whose six operations were paid for by private donors.

Authorities have vowed to clear the border minefields, which have killed more than 80 people since 1994, before 2014. In the meantime, four more migrants were killed in September.

"People are walking around like ghosts. They don't exist for the state but they are there," said UNHCR's Tsarbopoulos, adding Greece faced a "crisis situation" as anger at migrants rises.

Residents of another Aegean island close to Turkey, Patmos, refused in August to accept more migrants in a holding center which contained more people than island's Greek population.

"It was very difficult because of the massive arrival of immigrants whose behavior and living conditions were not appropriate," said Anna Romeou, head of the hoteliers of Patmos. "Citizens were outraged, we only had one doctor on the island ... and about 400 illegal migrants who had to be checked."

Rising crime and drug abuse has sparked criticism from right-wing groups of the rising migrant population in central Athens. A pitched battle there between rival African gangs with machetes in August made front-page headlines.

"As European economies slow, there'll be much more obvious competition between low-skilled local workers and migrants," said Baldwin-Edwards. "It's going to get really bad."

Reporting by Daniel Flynn; Additional reporting by Renee Maltezou and Lefteris Papadimas; Editing by Eddie Evans

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