Saturday, December 29, 2007

Tideof migrants strains Greek Islands...and everwhere else south too!!!

Tide of migrants strains Greek islands
Friday, December 28, 2007

SAMOS TOWN, Greece: On three Greek islands so close to Turkey that there are no international waters between them, migrants from Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Lebanon, Eritrea, the Palestinian territories and Iran furtively land, and the islands are buckling under the strain.

Six men and a woman crouch in the dark against the wall of the coast guard headquarters. An officer wearing camouflage barks questions in rudimentary English: "Name? Papa? Age?"

With a show of fingers they indicate their years: between 20 and 27.

"Country?" He shouts louder when they don't understand. Five say they are from Afghanistan, two from Palestinian areas. Then he lines them up in the roadway and marches them along the waterfront.

Scenes like this play out nightly on Samos, one of three Greek islands so close to Turkey that there are no international waters between them. White houses and the fluttering red Turkish flag are clearly visible from Samos's coastal road, where drivers frequently spot new arrivals struggling into town.

Migrants from Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Lebanon, Eritrea, the Palestinian territories and Iran land furtively on these islands, which are strung out along on a new fault line for immigration into the European Union.

Smugglers monitor both nations' coast guards, identify the lighthouses, and, according to migration lawyers and migrants themselves, charge emigrants €600, or $870, apiece for a place on an inflatable dinghy in which they row the short but treacherous distance into the European Union.

Greece's forceful reaction - in an area where geography puts it on the defensive against the inflow - illustrates how the stakes shift for the many thousands of migrants trying to pierce EU borders.

At the well-known targets - Lampedusa, off Italy; and the Canary Islands, Spanish territory off West Africa - refugees try to land after traveling hundreds of kilometers in flimsy boats. Here, all their peril and fate are compressed into little more than a kilometer of sea, or less than a mile. It is swimming distance, but for the treacherous waters of the strait.

The thousands of migrants who make it to Samos little appreciate how difficult it will be to progress further. In fact, for almost all, the door is about to slam firmly shut.

"Greece was not ready to accept such vast numbers of immigrants," said Vassilios Gatsas, chief of police for the three Northern Aegean islands of Samos, Lesbos and Chios. "From an immigrant-exporting country we have become importers in a very short period of time," he said, referring to the post-1945 exodus of Greeks to places like Australia, Canada and the United States.

The total number of arrivals has more than doubled on this island chain this year, and they are buckling under the strain, which has echoes in Athens.

Ordinary Greeks, with their own history of poverty, hardship and immigration, are still broadly sympathetic to the migrants' plight. Greece has no strong political parties demanding a halt to immigration, or, say, to the building of mosques, since most arrivals are in transit.

But the Interior Ministry has to deal with policy and policing problems, and international criticism is mounting: In April, for example, Greece lost a case brought by the European Commission at the European Court of Justice over access to asylum, while its protection vacuum is causing friction with neighbors like Italy.

In an interview at police headquarters in Samos Town, Gatsas said that to the end of November this year, 10,961 migrants had landed on the three islands compared with 4,024 in 2006. About 4,469 arrived on Samos alone, he added, three times the 1,580 it received last year.

By contrast, clandestine arrivals have dropped in Lampedusa this year and plunged to 9,600 from 32,000 last year in the Canaries.

In addition, 24 died making the crossing, their bodies washed up on Samos's beaches or dragged up in fishing nets, Gatsas said. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees for its part counts 100 dead or missing off these three islands this year. And at least 51 people - mainly Iraqis, Somalis and Palestinians - drowned this month in Turkish waters, a short distance north of Chios, when a migrant boat was wrecked in stormy seas off the Turkish town of Seferihisar.

An asylum seeker in his 50s, who said he had made the crossing to Samos "in record time of 40 minutes" in the summer and demanded anonymity to protect his family in Iran, said he had followed the advice of his Turkish smuggler and cut up his inflatable dinghy when he landed. "If the police catch you and see no boat, they say, 'Come with me,' " he said, which minimizes the chances of being sent straight back, and at least opens a slim chance of asylum.

The wave of undocumented arrivals this year has put enormous strain on this island of 35,000 - better known as a tourist resort and birthplace of the ancient mathematician Pythagorus.

A visit by the UN refugee agency in October shamed the island into closing a dilapidated tobacco factory in the heart of Samos Town that housed undocumented migrants in conditions that "offend human dignity," according to Giorgos Tsarbopoulos, the head of UNHCR in Greece.

On Dec. 1, Samos opened a €2.5 million state-of-the-art detention center above the capital. Two and a half years in the making, it has a mess hall, a basketball court and a playground. Restaurants in town provide catering, and the prefecture has deployed nine staff members to run the center, while the police provide 24-hour surveillance.

Its budget is not yet fixed, but maintaining the old center cost €700,000 per year, according to Sterios Thanos, who manages the prefecture's spending.

Gatsas said that the three islands, with a police force of 500, will get 300 more officers next year. "Until now, we tried to deal with the problem with the staff we have," he said. "In all the islands there are new police stations specializing in illegal immigration, which will be ready next year."

While investment flows into security, the island still relies on its amateur interpreters and the legal aid provided by Dimitrios Vouros, its single refugee lawyer, to help those needing asylum.

Vouros said that so far this year only 7 of the 4,469 migrants passing through the detention center had asked for protection. That is the same number of requests as last year, when the number of arrivals was one-third the size.

While multi-language UN leaflets are now on hand to explain asylum procedures, Vouros said, some migrants believed they stood a better chance if they waited to apply in Athens. Ireni Tremouli, the detention center's social worker, said many did not understand the gravity of their situation, focusing only on being released to join national diasporas in Sweden, Italy or Britain.

Others discount EU rules obliging refugees to request asylum in the first EU country they reach; still more may be deterred by Greece's rock-bottom rates of recognition.

Officials on the island, meanwhile, feel both burdened and unsupported by their neighbors in ensuring Europe's eastern border.

Gatsas; the coast guard chief, Stellos Partsafas; and Emmanuel Karlas, the prefect of Samos and its most senior political official, all blamed Turkey for not halting the flow of people and the EU for a lack of help. "Turkey does not control its border," Karlas said. "The EU must speak to Turkey to control the flow of immigrants with rules."

Gatsas said the EU should put pressure on Turkey to fulfill agreements on readmitting nonrefugee migrants who have crossed illegally into Greece. Otherwise, after three months' detention, Greece is obliged to release them with a 30-day deportation order that many see as a permit to travel on through Europe.

EU rules allow for those picked up in neighboring EU countries to be sent straight back to Greece.

Despite strains, the islanders as a whole still show good will to those washing up on their shores; on a recent day, passers-by could see nine undocumented Somalis huddling at a café all day, waiting for the ferry to Athens, before they were picked up by the police.

"In a way it's the history of Samos," Vouros said. "During World War II, for three to four years under the German Army, hundreds if not thousands of Greek people every night took small boats and went to Turkey, like these people, and from Turkey they went to Egypt. These people are like us - our grandfathers had the same story."

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