NEWS

Evros region is now one of the main entry points for clandestine immigrants from Middle East and Asia

FILAKIO (AFP) – Azerba, a Pakistani in his 20s, sits crammed with dozens of other illegal immigrants in a Greek detention center but he knows the worst is over: He has made it across the Evros River into «Europe.» Under Greek law, his release from this holding facility in the northeast near the Turkish border is only a matter of time. «I will soon be out, and I’m heading for Athens,» he said from behind the bars of his cell. Azerba, who gave only his first name, is one of thousands of would-be migrants intercepted every year in Greece. Many come from countries in conflict – such as Iraq, Afghanistan or Iran – while others claim to have lost their identification papers or invent identities to avoid expulsion. And many know that under Greek law, migrants from war zones or countries where dissidents could be brutally treated cannot be deported home or detained for more than three months, the legal limit. After this, they are released with a document requiring them to leave Greek territory. «The Evros region has become one of the main points of passage for clandestine immigrants from the Middle East and Central Asia,» said a British immigration officer, investigating human trafficking here for the EU border agency Frontex, who declined to be named. «And the flow is growing,» he said. On the southeastern flank of Europe, Greece has long been an entry point for illegals hoping to reach Italy, France, Britain or other EU states. But as these countries tighten up, more and more migrants are staying in Greece, dodging rearrest and drifting from one low-paying job to another for months. Last year alone, some 100,000 illegals were picked up all over the country, said Public Order Minister Vyron Polydoras. The figure, given in April, marked a break with earlier official reticence about detailing the extent of the illegal immigration. But now Greece is seeking assistance. «We’re at the extreme end of the EU border and I’m crying out to Europe, I’m asking for help,» said Polydoras. Parts of the Greek-Turkish frontier have been likened to a war zone where hundreds of special police patrol every night, equipped with infrared cameras, helicopters, motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles. But the flood of immigrants never stops. They swim across the Evros River, which forms a natural border with Turkey, or cross in boats, then head toward the Greek towns nearby. «We do our best to deter them from crossing the Turkish frontier but once they’re on Greek soil, we usually can’t expel them anywhere,» said Margaritis Tomazis, the commander of border guards in the region of Thrace. Mohammed, a 28-year-old Palestinian from Gaza, said «it cost me 300 euros ($407) to cross the river. «After that you walk and walk, and you’ll inevitably get arrested.» Mohammed, who said his journey through Lebanon, Syria and Istanbul cost 4,000 euros in all, like many came with a game plan. «I work in the restaurant business. I want to go to Crete, where I have a contact,» he said. «I adore Greece, people are very nice here.» A European diplomat close to the issue who asked not to be named said this was typical. «People want to settle where they have contacts, family and work possibilities. Now, you see more and more people from Pakistan or China living in central Athens. It’s clearly a factor drawing other people from these countries,» he said. At the sole road passage between Greece and Turkey, the border post in Kipi, every truck entering Greece is now given a detailed inspection, including for the tell-tale presence of carbon dioxide – which betrays human breath. In recent days, 43 people were found hiding behind a false ceiling, a guard said. «They usually try to hide on trucks, but we now also find them stacked in car boots, risking their lives in doing so,» said Ioakim Tsouknadis, deputy chief of police at Alexandroupolis, the region’s main port. And increasingly it is the immigrants themselves who organize the crossings, with Iraqis now competing with Bulgarians, Turks and even Greeks on their home turf. «They end up knowing the local mountains like the back of their hand,» said Tomazis. «We always find the same people, and we try not to get discouraged.» The facility in Filakio is Greece’s newest, and is already full. It opened only a few weeks ago amid complaints from human rights groups about conditions at other centers on Greek islands and in the capital. Last month, European Parliament deputies who inspected a detention center on the island of Samos reported «horrid» overcrowding and poor access to medical care and legal assistance.