Strengthened security measures along the Evros frontier with Turkey in northeastern Greece since the summer of 2011 have sparked a surge in attempts by illegal immigrants to sneak into the country through the porous coastlines of the country's islands. The migrants cross the sea border in boats and land wherever they can.
Local authorities often fall short of providing facilities for these people. As a result, pregnant women and children have to sleep out in the street or beg for food. Meanwhile, the locals, most of whom are doing all they can to help the newcomers, say they have neither the courage nor the means to deal with the situation that has strained other areas of Greece over the years.
The statistics illustrate the extent of the problem. Some 102 migrants tried to make their way through Greece's eastern sea border illegally between January 1 and July 31. In the three months that followed, officials arrested another 1,536 unregistered immigrants.
"It's quite a challenge. At the moment, we have 40 people from Syria, while another 25 left for Samos a few hours ago,» said Evangelos Kottoros, mayor on the Aegean island of Agathonisi.
"We are a population of just 140 and we have to deal with all this. I hope the police have the money to buy food for these people, because we certainly don't,» said Kottoros, adding that most of the immigrants have to sleep out in the streets. The local community do their best to help them, but a lot more is expected from the central authorities.
Officials on Lesvos in the eastern Aegean had decided to move more than 80 immigrants, who were camping in the center of the island's capital, into a building that normally hosts disabled children, which has water and power facilities. The camp, run by volunteers and municipal authorities, was shut down by police on December 27 and the migrants living at the camp were given notice to leave Greece voluntarily.
"It's a massive responsibility that we took on despite the fact that it is not in our area of responsibility; in these circumstances, everyone's humanity is being put to the test. It was a temporary space, not a detention center,» said Deputy Mayor Yiannis Vatos.
They were expecting very bad weather and there were children and pregnant women.
"There are people with special needs and children. The situation is quite dramatic. We are taking initiatives on a local level, but this is not enough. The state has to help,» said Zoi Livaditou, a member of a humanitarian organization that does work in the area.
On December 15, at least 18 migrants drowned off the coast of Lesvos en route from Turkey in one of many crossings made every month from the neighboring country.
North Aegean Region officials stress the need to set up immigrant detention centers as the existing facilities (mainly police and coast guard jails) are already overcrowded and the need for space is growing. It is indicative of the situation that the majority of immigrants on Lesvos have not been arrested as the police have nowhere to put them. Meanwhile, the police are not even in a position to take charge of the migrants arrested by the coast guard.
"On Chios the problem is not intense at the moment because we have a detention center that can accommodate up to 100 persons. But on other islands the story is quite different,» according to the vice regional governor for Chios, Konstantinos Ganiaris.
"We proposed using one of the island's defunct military camps, but we haven't heard back on that,» said his Lesvos counterpart, Iraklis Ververis. Moreover, progress in constructing three detention centers in the North Aegean Region has been slow, sources told Kathimerini, as the influx of migrants is expected to swell, particularly as the weather begins to improve after the winter.
A fence along the Greek-Turkish border, designed to prevent illegal immigration through the northern region of Evros, was completed on December 17, covering 10.5 kilometers of the 200-kilometer border with Turkey.
Even news of the project brought about a drop in the influx rate in the area, officials said. Any migrants who manage to sneak into the country are arrested and held in the limited available centers in the region.
"We have been impressed by the effectiveness of the operation. You no longer see wretched immigrants waiting at the Alexandropoli train station or people walking here all the way from Orestiada,» said Aris Giannakidis, regional governor of Eastern Macedonia and Thrace. «The number of migrants crossing illegally into the country is near zero,» he said.
The police force assigned with border security since August 2, totaling some 1,900 officers, was recently cut to about half that figure. They still mobilize whenever an illegal is spotted trying to cross the border. When immigrants are spotted on the Turkish side of the border, officials notify their Turkish counterparts so they can be arrested before entering Greece. If they manages to get through they are arrested and detained.
Results are more than satisfactory but authorities cannot afford to let their guard down as it's only a matter of time before the smugglers discover a crack in the security measures, they say.