Europe's increasingly dire struggle with illegal immigration reached a new extreme this month as child migrants held on a Greek island launched a hunger strike to protest the lack of proper shelter.
Dozens of children aged between 10 and 16 have landed in recent months on the remote island of Leros, near the Turkish coast. They arrived in Greece without their parents, a worrisome pattern immigration experts say is increasingly common. Most of the 121 children held on the island are from Afghanistan, but there are also Palestinians and Eritrians, said Sophia Ioannou, spokeswoman for the Greek branch of the humanitarian aid group Médecins du Monde (MdM). She said all the children were crammed into a single facility without enough beds or toilets.
Ioannou, speaking from phone from Athens, denied an earlier report that MdM colleagues on the island had encouraged the hunger strike as a way to draw attention to the children's plight. She says the children are drinking fluids and eating every two or three days. "But obviously," she said, "a child of 10 or 11 years old not eating for three days is risky for their health."
Greece, like Italy and Spain, has miles of exposed coastline, making it a common entry point for immigrants aiming for European Union soil. Often people-smugglers, eager to avoid capture, force their charges off their boats and into the water well before arriving at shore. Thousands of would-be immigrants are believed to die each year in the Mediterranean, according to a top European Union official. Arrivals in Greece, most of them smuggled by boat from Turkey, have been increasing in recent months. Ioannou said that on this small island of Leros, for example, more than 800 immigrants have come in the first four months of 2008, up from just 45 for the same period last year.
Médecins du Monde, which is providing medical care on the island, does not denounce the strapped local authorities, but says that there are not enough facilities and personnel to handle the recent explosion in immigrant arrivals. Says Ioannou: "Greece just doesn't have the infrastructure to respond to the needs" of the new arrivals. Many of the would-be immigrants use Greece as a way station as they aim for points farther north and west in Europe.
If they ever make it, they're unlikely to receive a warm welcome there either. On Thursday, in a sweep aimed at combating illegal immigration, Italian police took nearly 400 people into custody and immediately deported more than 50, according to the Interior Ministry. The coordinated effort, carried out in cities throughout the country, was the high-profile follow-through for the recently installed government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The new Interior Minister, Roberto Maroni, is the No. 2 official of the Northern League, a party which takes a hard line against immigration. He pledged further police action against illegal immigrants to fend off growing fears of vigilante justice: earlier this week, the makeshift quarters of Roma, or Gypsies, were set afire near Naples, forcing them to flee for their safety.
But the drama on the Greek island suggests that police round-ups, public ire and poor living conditions aren't about to deter people fleeing their poorer, troubled homelands. Asked why children are sent off alone from their home countries, Ioannou paused, and said: "They come for their lives."