NEWS

Islet that is migrants’ gateway to the EU

AGATHONISI – The azure waters of tiny Agathonisi are as inviting as Greece’s other Aegean Sea islands, but here a coast guard flotilla, not tourist yachts, takes up most of the picturesque harbor. The island off Turkey’s west coast has a permanent population of about 100 and welcomes at least double that number of tourists in the summer. But it is also a magnet for thousands of illegal immigrants from Asia and Africa crossing these smuggler-infested waters that constitute the European Union’s southeastern border. «We’ve been coming here for about 16 years, and every year it gets worse,» says Michael, a 60-year-old Briton preparing breakfast on board his yacht. «It’s sad but something has to be done.» Last year alone, some 5,000 migrants – 50 times the population – were detained on Agathonisi, said local municipal councilor Stelios Kamitsis. An EU summit in Brussels last month pledged to address repeated calls from Greece and the other «front-line» states of Cyprus, Malta and Italy for help in securing maritime borders against the daily influx. Recently, Athens’s conservative government warned that immigration was pushing the country’s resources to the limit. «Given the seriousness of the situation, a number of measures must be adopted without delay,» Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis urged EU leaders. ‘This is Greece?’ Back on the Agathonisi pier, a patrol boat has just arrived with a fresh load of bedraggled would-be immigrants, a group of 16 men, three women and a baby. «This is Greece?» gasps Osef Ahmadi, an exhausted 25-year-old clutching a small bag of belongings. With him are his brother Ali, his wife Leyla and their baby daughter Mariam, aged 1. They claim to be Afghan. The small family left Afghanistan’s Wardak province a month ago, paying 10,000 euros for passage to the Turkish coast on a truck, says Osef. As he speaks, the coast guard officers produce the slashed remains of an inflatable dinghy on which the migrants entered Greek waters. «We found them on the maritime border with Turkey, about 3 nautical miles from the island,» says Dimitris Stratis, the harbor master of neighboring Patmos island, which has jurisdiction over the area. «It’s the usual story: They tore the dinghy so they would be rescued as castaways and avoid being arrested for illegal entry into Greece,» he notes. On the pier, police officers separate the men from the three women in the group. Lacking identity papers, the men are asked to give their names and those of their parents, their age and nationality. The women follow. «Cheers, smile,» says a policeman snapping their mugshots under the blazing midmorning sun. Based on the migrants’ statements, the final tally reads: 19 Afghans and one Burmese, aged 15-30. With the identification phase complete, the group is lined up and taken to a 30-square-meter warehouse near the harbor that will serve as their home for the coming days. «How long will we stay here?» asks Roya Hosseini, a 28-year-old woman accompanied by her husband Javed. She is dressed in brightly colored clothes and wears no veil. «I want to join my brother who lives in Italy, but they’ve taken our cell phone SIM cards,» says 19-year-old Isaha Han, who is barefoot after losing his shoes in the boat. The warehouse only emptied a day earlier when a group of Pakistanis who slept inside for four days were removed and transferred to the nearby island of Samos, which has a larger migrant reception center. A day later, another 50 migrants fished out of the sea are brought here too. «The state offered to build a reception center on the island but we refused, as it’s bad for tourism,» said councilor Kamitsis. «Sometimes the migrants steal our goats but that’s not important – it’s the diseases we’re worried about,» says the councilor’s wife Chryssoula. Brussels promised «a determined European response based on firmness, solidarity and shared responsibility,» and stressed the need to beef up the Frontex border agency conducting sea patrols, in a pre-summit statement. But Athens already announced some of its own measures last month – including beefed-up penalties for people smugglers and extending maximum detention for migrants from the current three months to 12 – to try to stem the influx. In 2008, Greek coast guard officers arrested 15,315 migrants as they tried to enter the country illegally by boat, a 65 percent spike over 2007, the Merchant Marine Ministry said. Thousands more have also died over the years trying to make sea crossings into the EU. In all, more than 146,000 illegals were caught in Greece last year, up from the 122,000 arrested in 2007 and a huge increase over the 45,000 arrested in 2004, the Interior Ministry said. Greek officials also blame Turkey for taking insufficient action to stem the outflow of clandestine migrants from its own territory. «We mount daily patrols but, without Turkey’s help, the problem will not be solved,» says the Patmos harbor master.