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Thursday, November 15, 2001


Collateral Damage: Afghan Refugees in Greece

Greece may soon become the homestead of thousands of illegal Afghan immigrants fleeing their war-torn country. This new wave of Afghan immigration to Greece follows previous waves of immigrants from other nations. As the Middle East’s gateway to Europe, Greece straddles both West and East. For decades, it has received a steady stream of immigrants entering the European Union (EU) illegally from the Middle East, Asia, and Eastern Europe.

As the United States-led air strikes on Afghanistan continue, EU countries are preparing for an influx of illegal immigrants. In Greece, illegal immigration has been increasing steadily throughout the year. Some experts estimate that the new wave will begin a couple months after the start of the air strikes, which commenced in early October. “The worst-case scenario…for people fleeing from Afghanistan is about one and a half million refugees. We are trying to prepare,” said Ketty Kehagioglou, a public information officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Athens.

Most illegal immigrants come into Greece from Turkey by sea on small craft, with hundreds of people usually crammed into a space fit for a dozen. Recently, they have resorted to buying lifejackets and plastic rafts, pumping them up, and setting off from the Turkish coast to nearby Greek islands such as Chios, which is about 15 kilometers (9.4 miles) west, and Kos. Many of these people do not know how to swim, and it is not known how many perish in the process of trying to reach the islands.

“They are in appalling conditions,” said Agis Terzides, a pediatrician, and a special secretary of the board of directors of the Greek delegation of the international aid agency Doctors of the World, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that provides medical care to refugees when they arrive in Greece. “They have paid a large part of their money, maybe two, three, four thousand dollars, depending on their area, so that they can leave. Essentially, they sell everything they have…and they start, either by foot or other means, until they reach Turkey and are put in some ships and come here.”

Greece shares borders in the north with Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia, and in the northeast with Turkey. Illegal immigrants can also enter from the mountains of Turkey, but they must cross the natural border of the Evros (in Turkish, Meric) River. Some are killed in the minefields on the Greek side, which is part of anti-Turkish defenses. “We don’t know how many people manage to come through the entire journey,” said Kehagioglou. According to Greek authorities, approximately 210,000 illegal immigrants from 24 countries have been detained during 2001, with about 4,448 of them entering by sea from Turkey. This is an increase from 2000, when 3,664 people were caught. This year, the coast guard has arrested 92 smugglers and confiscated 75 vessels.

Although not all illegal immigrants arriving in Greece come from war-torn countries, the number of refugees is rising. The merchant marine ministry states that illegal Afghan immigration into Greece is on the rise. Since 1996, most refugees have come from Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, but people have also come from as far away as Sierra Leone, Gambia, Sri Lanka, and Sudan.

Since January, about 1,300 Afghans have been detained while last year only 250 were caught, according to the ministry. “There is an increase, but it is not due to the bombings. The waves due to the bombings have not started yet. They are expected in one, two, or three months,” said George Kosmadakis, director of the Greek Council for Refugees, which assists refugees in applying for asylum. Kosmadakis said that the people arriving in Greece now left before the bombings began. “These people that are coming here represent the previous situation,” Kosmadakis said.

Authorities have detained hundreds of immigrants crossing from Turkey in recent weeks. At this stage, it is difficult to know how the protocol of cooperation, signed few days ago between Greece and Turkey, concerning the repatriation of illegal immigrants, will effect the state of those detained recently. Officials fear that Greece, the only EU member in the region, could be swamped by Afghan refugees because of the US air strikes. “Usually, Kurds and Afghans…come as families, either complete, or the mother with the children, or father with children,” said Terzides. He said that now, however, young Afghan boys, aged 12-15, are fleeing alone. “Because the violence has increased, we now have the phenomenon of young Afghans primarily coming alone….From September 11 on, most of those people who understood that something may happen started to leave, not waiting for the bombings.”

Premier Kostas Simitis has estimated that 250,000 illegal immigrants will enter Greece by the end of this year. Experts say that Greece does not have the infrastructure to absorb them. There is one state-run reception center for asylum-seekers in Lavrion, a port 52 kilometers (33 miles) southwest of Athens. Its capacity is 300 people. Other reception areas, funded by NGOs, are in Nea Makri (capacity 120 people), Pendeli (280 people), and Thessaloniki (90 people). “At this moment…the four reception centers in Greece are full. Already, [the government] is trying to open other ones,” Kosmadakis said.

Kosmadakis insists that the situation can be improved by changing governmental policy. “It’s a matter of organization, appointing people, upholding the international agreements that the country has signed, and the internal law that exists,” he says. The ministries of health, merchant marine, and public order are working together with NGOs and the UNHCR to come up with plans. Officials from the health ministry confirm that there is an emergency plan for increased illegal immigration, but they refuse to elaborate.

Even if many illegal immigrants do come to Greece, only a small percentage will be given asylum. According to the UNHCR, there were 3,083 applications for asylum in 2000; of the 1,970 cases examined, only 222 were recognized as asylum-seekers, however. By comparison, from January to June 2001, there were 1,162 applications, with 446 cases examined and 55 people accepted. Most of the applications were from Iraqis and Afghans. “It’s very important for us…to ensure that all those who are victims of persecution, and have the right to ask for asylum, are free to do so,” said Kehagioglou.

Sometimes Greece is not the ultimate destination, but only a transit-point to other EU countries such as Germany and Italy. Kurds try to get to Germany, which has a more organized support system for them, Terzides said. More work needs to be done to give illegal immigrants medical care and satisfactory accommodations, according to Terzides. “We have proposed the creation of a center for refugees organized…in some area of Greece,” said Terzides. He adds that the health ministry needs to begin a program for doctors to travel to the detained immigrants, so as to provide vaccinations and other necessary care.

An organized effort must be made to deal with the impending influx of refugees, and it is up to the government to do it, according to the specialists on this issue. “Greece is a gateway of entry so it will not be one of the countries that will not get [people]....It is estimated that the numbers will increase, and by a lot,” Kosmadakis concludes.

Lisa Orkin works in the Athens bureau of Associated Press.
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