COMMENT

Method or madness?

Greece's policy regarding illegal immigrants used to be very successful: People caught trying to sneak into the country were either forced back across the border or were abandoned to their fate, in the knowledge that the migrants would do all in their power to keep moving on toward more welcoming members of the European Union. Of the hundreds of thousands of people from places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, a small minority chose to seek their fortune in Greece - a country that provided no benefits but did offer more work than what these (mostly) unskilled young men could find at home. In the last couple of years, however, things have become more difficult for those trying to get to more western or northern EU countries, leading to a large concentration of illegal immigrants in some Greek cities, especially Athens and Patras. With minimal - if any - social services to rely on, the migrants formed their own support networks and gravitated toward areas where others of their kind had found lodging - whether in residential neighborhoods or shanties on vacant lots. As time passed and their numbers grew, the new arrivals became a problem for local residents, prompting calls for «something to be done.» The pressure hit the Greek government in last month's elections for the European Parliament, when the populist, anti-immigrant Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS), was the only party to gain votes - mostly at the ruling New Democracy party's expense. At their recent summit, the EU leaders finally appeared to heed the cries of Greece, Italy, Malta and Cyprus, all in the frontline of illegal migration, and expressed «great concern at the dramatic situation in the Mediterranean area.» Among the measures Commissioner for Justice Jacques Barrot is preparing: permitting people to seek asylum in countries other than the ones of first entry, establishing new rules for reception procedures, reuniting minors with their families in other EU countries and setting up an EU office to support asylum seekers. Barrot, who was in Greece the past week, adopted a carrot-and-stick approach, demanding that Greece create a public administration capable of dealing with asylum applications, while also promising to press Turkey to take back migrants who entered Greece from its territory. Ankara refuses to honor a protocol signed with Athens in 2001, saying it does not want to become a dumping ground for unwanted migrants. Greece now says it will help push for repatriation agreements with Afghanistan and Pakistan, so that migrants can go home without staying in Turkey. Barrot's proposals aim at bridging the gap between the southern countries that bear the brunt of immigration and the more welcoming countries of Northern and Western Europe, which criticize their southern partners but would like to avoid getting involved in the problem. The problem of illegal immigration is a problem for all Europe, not just the countries that stand on the EU's porous borders. But it is one thing to need support because a problem is too big for one country and another to force your partners to take over a large part of your duties because of your own incompetence. The lack of a comprehensive policy over many years and the breathtaking incompetence of state employees charged with dealing with immigrants weigh on the government. The European Union has been forced to both warn Athens of serious consequences if it does not get its act together and to take over a large part of its responsibilities. Instead of this pushing Greece to formulate a serious policy, the government has brushed aside domestic criticism and passed a law that could lead to immigrants - both legal and illegal - being deported without trial, simply by being charged with any crime that carries a jail sentence of three months or more. We can only wonder if this madness is aimed simply at a domestic audience or whether its purpose is the abdication of even more of our responsibilities.

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