Refugee Crisis

Syrian Immigrants Flood Greece

Already beset with immigration and financial woes, Greece must now cope with a rising tide of Syrian refugees. Barbie Latza Nadeau on the Greeks’ controversial efforts to make room.

08.26.12 8:00 PM ET

If seven miles of razor-wire fence along the Turkish border doesn’t stem the flow of illegal immigrants into Greece, authorities hope that beefed-up border control with nearly 1,900 armed guards will. “The country is about to perish,” warned Greek Minister for Civil Protection Nikolaos Dendias on national television, announcing the tripling of border-control personnel. “We are facing an invasion.”

For years, Greece has been a sieve for irregular migrants who want to make their way to Europe. An estimated one million illegal immigrants live in Greece, making up approximately 7 percent of the population. Porous borders and easy passage have fueled a thriving human-trafficking market that has put a financial strain on the country and led to unthinkable conditions for many immigrants who are stuck in a no-man’s land trying to get to mainland Europe. But now the situation is exacerbated by thousands of Syrian refugees trying to find safety and legitimate asylum who are slowly sifting from Turkey to Greece. There are currently 80,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey, according to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and Greek officials say they expect nearly 15,000 of them to try to enter Greece by the end of September.

Since the beginning of the year, roughly 1,000 Syrian refugees have made their way into Europe each month, and the rate is quickly rising. Most enter Europe through Greece, but in recent weeks, Italy has seen its first refugee boats arrive on their shores. On August 9, a rickety fishing boat with 124 Syrians reached the southern coast of Calabria. There were 48 children and two pregnant women among the passengers. The origin of the boat is still not known, but several Turkish nationals were on board the vessel, which idled offshore. Local officials in Calabria have said the boat may have come directly from Greece, with port authorities there likely turning a blind eye out of desperation to somehow relieve the swelling numbers of immigrants. The Turks on board the boat were arrested on suspicion of human trafficking, and the Syrians are being processed for asylum. If the numbers continue to rise in Italy, authorities plan to use structures built to house thousands of Libyan refugees who came through the country last year, and who have now almost all been repatriated or moved to other countries in Europe.

In Greece, the situation is much more dire. In a controversial effort to make room for legitimate asylum seekers, Greek authorities have made an unprecedented move to deport the excess irregular migrants who have been living in Greece illegally. Since August 4, over 7,000 immigrants have been literally scooped off the streets of Athens and its suburbs in armed raids and checked for irregular paperwork. Those with legal documents are released, but nearly 2,000 have been arrested and currently await deportation in converted army camps.

UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, has called for an end to the sweeps, which they say put truly vulnerable refugees at risk. Human Rights Watch says the migrants are picked up based on visual racial profiling, which violates their basic human rights. “The Greek authorities’ ongoing sweeps targeting suspected migrants based on little more than their physical appearance violate international standards,” the organization said in a statement earlier this month.

Last week, officials in nearby Macedonia complained that Greeks were dumping illegal immigrants by the truckload—sometimes 100 at a time—on the streets of Macedonian cities. The trucks arrive around 2 a.m. and the disorientated migrants are left with no money or idea where they are. Macedonian authorities have lodged an official complaint to the European Union, but the practice continues.

For many of the migrants and refugees, staying in Greece is becoming increasingly dangerous. Since the beginning of the year, a dozen young men have been killed on the streets of Athens, and over 500 immigrants have been victims of violent racial attacks. Before the elections in June, an Albanian man was stabbed with a sword in broad daylight. Two weeks ago, a 19-year-old Iraqi man was stabbed to death by five assailants in downtown Athens as passersby looked on.

On Friday, thousands of immigrants took to the streets of Athens to protest the maltreatment in an attempt to focus international attention on the growing problem. But before the march ended, nearly 400 had been detained.