Ailing Greece Struggles with an Influx of Illegal Migrants

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Sakis Mitrolidis / AFP / Getty Images

Members of the E.U.'s border-control agency, Frontex, patrol the fields near Orestiada, in northeastern Greece

Rasha had a simple dream when she left Gaza's al-Shati camp. "Job, food, house," she says. "Or at least hope for them." Europe, she had heard, was full of hope. So Rasha, 25, and her husband Ali, 31, sold their belongings and borrowed from friends and relatives to pay a smuggler nearly $2,000 to help them and their 4-month-old son Yusef get there. One November night, they crossed the Evros River that marks the border between Greece and Turkey. They were found at dawn by Greek police and sent to the Fylakio detention center near the northeastern city of Orestiada.

After three days at the center, which Rasha says was so crowded with migrants that she couldn't see the floor, the family was released. Now they're outside Fylakio waiting to board a bus bound for Athens, where they know no one. "I am hopeful," says Rasha, as Ali holds their exhausted son. "And I am so happy."

Considering the rise in migrants traveling to Greece, and the poverty and bureaucracy that keep them stuck there, Rasha's optimism might soon disintegrate. In 2010, nearly 90% of illegal migrants to Europe entered through Greece, according to Frontex, the E.U.'s border-patrol agency. Until recently, Italy, France and Spain were the most popular entry points. But increased coast-guard patrols in the past couple of years have blocked routes by sea, forcing migrants to find a new way in.

Alarmed by the sudden influx of illegal migrants pouring into Greece, the E.U. sent Frontex forces to Orestiada in November to help local police patrol an especially troublesome 13-km section of the 206-km Greek-Turkish border. The Greek government said this month that it wants to build a fence along that stretch. Some 31,400 people crossed just that portion of the border in the first nine months of 2010 — more than the number of illegal crossings through the Canary Islands in 2006, a peak year for immigration to Spain. Frontex says almost half of the migrants claim to be Afghans, paying smugglers around $3,000 a head to escape a country where per capita income is only $900.

Though most have hopes of traveling on to countries like Sweden or Britain, where jobs and benefits are more plentiful, many migrants run out of money and find themselves trapped in Athens. That's what happened to Tahar Zarouk, a 33-year-old Tunisian. He subsists on a free daily meal of soup, salad and bread prepared by the capital's Greek, Anglican and African churches, and sleeps rough. Standing in a food line on a damp winter day, Zarouk says he's desperate to work — a remote possibility in a recession-battered country where the locals themselves struggle for employment. "Every day, Greeks tell me to leave," he says. "But I have no money. Where am I supposed to go?"

Like many migrants, Zarouk has endured beatings at the hands of nationalist thugs. Supporters of the far-right, anti-immigrant group Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn) regularly trawl through some central Athens neighborhoods, attacking migrants. In a sign of worsening tensions, Athenians elected Chrysi Avgi's president to the city's municipal council last November. "It's disillusioning for them, to see the Europe of their dreams be like this," says Father Jimoh Adebayo, a Nigerian minister who helps at the food line on Sophocleous Street. "They have sold everything back home and they see that here there is nothing." Asylum is unlikely. The U.N. says Greece has more than 52,000 asylum requests awaiting processing, and that only about 0.3% of those applications will be approved, compared with an average of 31% in Britain, France, Germany and Sweden.

Rasha knows none of this as she leaves the Fylakio detention center and boards the bus to Athens with about 80 other migrants. Tickets cost $80 each, and Rasha pays using a meager horde of cash that she brought into Greece under three layers of clothing. "Ali and I will have jobs, maybe at a shop, and we will have a little house, and the baby can sleep," she says. As the bus pulls away, Rasha waves through a window. She's the only one smiling.