Ailing Greece Struggles with a Flood of Illegal Immigrants
After three days at the center, which Rasha says was so crowded with migrants that she couldn't see the floor, the family got out. Now they're outside Fylakio waiting to board a bus bound for Athens, where they know no one. "I am hoping," says Rasha, as Ali holds their exhausted son. "And I am so happy." (See pictures of immigration in Europe.)
Considering the rise in migrants traveling to Greece, and the poverty and bureaucracy that keeps them stuck there, Rasha's optimism might soon disintegrate. So far this year, more than 90% of illegal migrants to Europe have entered through Greece, according to Frontex, the E.U.'s border-patrol agency. Until recently, Italy, France and Spain were the most popular entry points for illegal immigration into the continent. But increased coast-guard patrols in the past couple of years have blocked routes by sea, forcing migrants to find a new way in. "Smugglers were being arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned, so criminal networks shifted their route to this area around Orestiada," says Frontex spokesman Michal Parzyszek.
Alarmed by the sudden influx of illegal migrants pouring into Greece, the E.U. sent Frontex forces to Orestiada in November to help Greek police patrol an especially troublesome eight-mile (13 km) section of the 128-mile (200 km) land border between Greece and Turkey. Some 31,400 people crossed just that portion of the border in the first nine months of 2010 - more than the number of illegal crossings through all of the Canary Islands in 2006, a peak year for immigration to Spain. (Read about how the economic crisis brought about a Greek-Turkish thaw.)
Frontex says almost half of the migrants say they're Afghans, who pay smugglers around $3,000 to help them escape a country where per capita income is only $900. But for Jamir Khan, 22, it wasn't money that sent him to Greece - it was war. The skinny, tough car mechanic from Laghman province in eastern Afghanistan - a place he describes as "all fight, all the time" - learned his trade in Manchester, England, where he lived illegally for a few months about four years ago.
Then police raided the house he was sleeping in and deported him. "I told them, 'Give me a chance! I'm not a Talib! I am working!'" he tells TIME. "I told them I was going to come back." True to his word, he arrived at the Fylakio detention center in mid-November after his family took out loans to pay a smuggler $3,000. He's broke, so he's walking nearly 600 miles to Athens. (Read "Why Is the E.U. Sending Armed Guards to Greece?")
The journey to Orestiada is not without its dangers. Scores have died crossing the border from Turkey over the years, many while trying to get to the other side of the Evros River. According to Frontex, at least 44 migrants have drowned there this year. That's nearly twice as many as the number that died last year, says Mehmet Serif Damadoglou, the mufti of the mixed Christian and Muslim prefecture of Evros. He buries the dead in a makeshift cemetery on a hill near his village of Sidero.
Surrounded by 140 small mounds of dirt, each marking a grave, Damadoglou recalls meeting the distraught parents of a 16-year-old Somali girl who drowned in the Evros this summer. He remembers how the mother hugged the earth that held her daughter's body. "They could not swim, but they were trying to because their small inflatable boat overturned. The last time [the mother] saw her daughter, she heard someone yell, 'Help! Help!' and then the river took the girl away," Damadoglou says, sighing. "They came here to visit her and pray." He says he cringed when they told him they were heading to Athens to find jobs. "It's very hard in Athens, because right now even the Greeks don't have work," he says. "Migrants can fall into an abyss there and never get out." (See pictures of economic-driven riots in Greece.)
Though most migrants go to Europe through Greece with the hopes of traveling on to countries like Sweden or Britain, where jobs and benefits are more plentiful, many run out of money and find themselves trapped in Athens. That's what happened to Tahar Zarouk, a 33-year-old Tunisian from the southeastern city of Medenine. He subsists on a free daily meal of soup, salad and bread prepared by the capital's Greek, Anglican and African churches. The food is distributed in a drab courtyard on Sophocleous Street, a drag in central Athens infested with drug dealers. He sleeps in a nearby alley and says he's been beaten up several times by anti-immigrant thugs. Standing in a food line on a damp December day, Zarouk says he's desperate to work. "Every day, Greeks tell me to leave," he says. "But I have no money. Where am I supposed to go?" (Comment on this story.)
Others wait in Athens for asylum that will likely never come. The U.N. says Greece has more than 52,000 asylum requests waiting to be processed. Only 0.3% of those applications are granted, compared with an average of 31% in Britain, France, Germany and Sweden, the U.N. says.
Jobless and often homeless, migrants face increasing hostility from Greeks despairing over the country's rising unemployment. Supporters of the far-right, anti-immigrant group Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn) regularly trawl through some central Athens neighborhoods brandishing clubs and beating up homeless migrants. In a troubling sign that relations between Greeks and migrants are souring further, Athenians elected Chrysi Avgi's president to the city's municipal council in October. "It's disillusioning for them, to see the Europe of their dreams be like this," says Father Jimoh Adebayo, a Nigerian minister who helps at the food line on Sophocleous Street. "They have sold everything back home and they see that here, there is nothing." Adebayo says he sees more people in the food line every week, including Greeks who have lost homes or jobs. (Read "Greek Voters Give Austerity Plan a Second Chance.")
But Rasha knows none of this as she's leaving the Fylakio detention center and boarding the bus to Athens with about 80 other migrants. The Greek bus driver wears rubber gloves to handle their tickets; the seats are covered in plastic wrap. Tickets cost 60 euros, or $80, each, but Rasha can pay - she stashed euros left over after paying the smuggler in a money belt she wore under three layers of clothing. "Ali and I will have jobs, maybe at a shop, and we will have a little house, and the baby can sleep," she says. As the bus pulls away, Rasha waves through a window. She's the only one smiling.
Dec. 17, 2010