Greece's Migrant Influx Spurs EU Anger

As Greece struggles with political upheaval and deepening economic malaise, its 126-mile-long land border with Turkey has become the flash point for a crisis of another sort—a tide of refugees and illegal immigrants.
Thousands of people fleeing poverty and turmoil in the Middle East, Africa and southern Asia are stepping across Greece's muddy boundary with Turkey each month. The trend is testing government resources, fueling support for ultranationalist groups in blighted urban areas and raising tensions between Athens and the European Union.

Greece's border with Turkey, which runs through the verdant Evros River valley, has become the preferred passage for smugglers and migrants seeking to avoid more perilous sea routes, European officials say.
At times, the area has accounted for as much as 90% of detected illegal border crossings into the EU, according to Frontex, Europe's border agency. Last year, about 55,000 illegal crossings were detected on Greece's land border with Turkey, it says. Greek officials say they expect more than 100,000 migrants to arrive this year.
On a recent morning in this languid border town, a group of nine who said they had crossed into Greece hours earlier wandered down a main street.
"My country is very dangerous," said 18-year-old Somali Abdulkadir Osman as he sat down on a sidewalk, weary from the journey. "Greece," he added, "has peace and stability."
But once they have experienced desperate conditions and joblessness in Greece, few migrants express a desire to stay. Many say it is far easier to enter Greece than to sneak into another EU country, a journey that often requires paying smugglers for fake documents to board a flight, or attempting risky overland and overseas routes.
Greece is "a big cage," said one Afghan migrant.
While the country's total count of undocumented migrants and asylum-seekers isn't clear, some academics place the number at 400,000 to 700,000. As homeless, unemployed migrants fill city squares and parks in Greece's struggling cities, anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise, with violent, racist attacks reaching "alarming proportions," according to Human Rights Watch. In Athens last spring, the group said, far-right extremists went on a violent spree in neighborhoods populated by immigrants, leaving as least 25 people in the hospital with beatings or stab wounds.
Foreigners' growing presence has helped bring new support to the extreme-right Golden Dawn party, which vows to "undirty" Greece from migrants. The country's mainstream parties, already struggling to draw voters amid Greece's economic crisis, have adopted a harsher line on immigration.
"It's necessary to reclaim our cities," says Antonis Samaras, whose center-right New Democracy party finished first in Sunday's national election. He has called illegal immigrants "tyrants."
Human-rights groups have long criticized Greece for a dysfunctional, backlogged asylum system. They say Athens has failed to fulfill its obligation to provide shelter and services to asylum-seekers, and cite inhumane conditions in migrant detention centers.
At one police station near here, fenced-in migrants slept outside, huddled in sleeping bags on stained foam mattresses.
The Greek government says it is making improvements to detention centers and its asylum system, but is overwhelmed by the influx. "The result of all this is tragic for a country that is facing an economic crisis," Greek Minister for Citizen Protection Michalis Chrisochoidis told reporters last month.
Under EU regulations, the responsibility for processing asylum requests lies with the member state where the asylum-seeker first arrives. But last year, the European Court of Human Rights barred an Afghan asylum-seeker's transfer from Belgium to Greece, citing poor conditions there. Many European nations have since suspended returns of migrants to Greece.
The European Commission allocated €304 million ($393 million) to Greece from 2007 through this year for improving the nation's migration management. But administrative "red tape" in Greece has hindered absorption of much of that funding, an EC spokesman said.
Frontex, the border agency, says it is helping Greek authorities by providing border surveillance and helping identify irregular migrants' nationalities, a first step toward any potential deportation proceeding. Afghans and Pakistanis recently accounted for the largest groups entering Greece over the Turkish border, says the agency.
The Greek Citizen Protection Ministry says it wants to begin removing undocumented arrivals from cities by creating 30 detention centers that together will hold approximately 30,000, and to step up deportations.
Yet deportations or readmission of migrants to Turkey are often unlawful or vastly complicated, say Greek officials. Many migrants, once detained by Greek police, are released after a short time along with a form ordering them to leave the country within 30 days, officials say, but most migrants invariably stay longer.
The government is also constructing a 6.4-mile fence along a particularly porous part of its border with Turkey. That plan has drawn criticism as an ineffective gimmick from elsewhere in the EU, where political leaders complain that many undocumented migrants are moving north from Greece.
Some European politicians say Greece's failure to grapple with the issue risks undermining the principle of open borders adopted by most EU members under the so-called Schengen treaty.
"If countries such as Greece fail to control the external borders, we must be able to temporarily control the internal borders again," German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich told Germany's Rheinische Post newspaper last month. "The open borders within the Schengen area should not become a gateway for illegal migration flows."
At the same time, along Greece's border with Turkey, the influx shows no sign of slowing, the Greek government says.
While some migrants crossing the border speak about the ease of their journey, others perish trying.
Some who drowned trying to cross the Evros River are buried in rows of unmarked graves in Sidro, a Greek mountain village not far from the border that is populated by a Turkish-speaking Muslim minority.
"They think they're going to find a good life," says Hasan Saramet, a 70-year-old mosque leader who performs Muslim burials.
Passing by the graves on a recent afternoon, he pointed to one of the fresher mounds, where he said a 16-year-old girl from Afghanistan lay. Her sister, he said, was still missing.
"Oh, how the parents cried," the imam said of the funeral.
Even as some risk their lives to enter Greece, a few migrants on the border could be seen trying to escape.
Ahmed Takia, a 40-year-old Algerian, said he had crossed into Greece three weeks prior, hopping on trains and crisscrossing the land in search of work. He didn't find any. Emaciated after scrounging for food in garbage cans, he decided to make the return journey back into Turkey, where he hoped his chances of finding work might be better.
"I was thinking Europe," he said. "But in the end, nothing."
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