Blamed for both allowing in too many illegal immigrants and for letting them out to get to other EU countries, Greece now has been hit anew with charges it mistreats many of them and that those who do get out shouldn't be returned.
The European Court of Justice, in two cases brought by the UK and Ireland, has ruled that EU countries can't transfer asylum seekers to a state "where he risks being subjected to inhuman treatment".
It was a reference to Greece, the entry point for 90% of undocumented immigrants trying to get into the EU because of the country's perch on the bloc's Mediterranean coast and bordering a host of Balkan countries and Turkey, a key jumping-off point for human smuggling. They try to come across in rickety boats, canoes, cardboard boxes, packed in crates in trucks, hidden in cars and buses, any way they can think of to avoid patrols, often to no avail.
Overwhelmed by waves of immigrants and asylum seekers, Greece is trying to cope, and authorities are planning to build a 4.9m-euro, 12.5km fence in the Evros region, which abuts Turkey.
During the Christmas holidays, three people, including an Iranian woman and her 12-year-old daughter, died trying to cross a frigid river there, a favourite spot for immigrants trying to sneak into Greece, where 12 others have drowned.
In the first nine months of 2011, about 36,000 illegal immigrants were caught trying to cross from Turkey. There were 128,000 in 2010. Others, primarily from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, have been apprehended at other places along the border, even as Greece complained about a lack of support from the EU, which operates the FRONTEX patrols to look for unlawful immigrants.
Many immigrants use Greece's northern and western borders, especially the port of Patras, which has a ship route directly to neighbouring Italy, to get into other EU countries. If caught, EU law says they must be returned to the first country they entered, which means Greece has to take them back, a risk the court said is now too dangerous.
The court ruling was hailed by NGOs supporting the rights of immigrants and the UN's Refugee Agency Athens Branch of UNHCR. "Greece has been the gate of entrance for mixed groups of people, refugees and migrants … which places a very heavy burden on the country," spokeswoman Ketty Kehayioylou told SETimes.
With Greece's economic crisis, she said the plight of many immigrants has worsened, even as they are often blamed for the country's deteriorating conditions. Citizen Protection Minister Christos Papoutsis has appealed for help from the EU, saying Greece is paying a disproportionate price for guarding it borders.
The ruling deals with how asylum seekers were being treated and Kehayioylou said it gives a little hope for improvement.
A Human Rights Watch report found that many were being housed in overcrowded, unsanitary detention centres, and that others were being abused. In December, two police officers were sentenced to five years in prison for torturing two Afghan refugees.
A few years ago, only about one in 10,000 asylum seekers won their cases but Kehayioylou said that has now risen to about 12%. She said the ruling "means that individual asylum seekers should not be sent back to countries where they face a real risk of degrading treatment".
UNHCR said 56,943 unlawful immigrants were arrested during the first eight months of 2011 trying to enter the country. That's down 33.5%, as the country's economic crisis has them looking to go elsewhere.
But amidst the crush of trying to keep out refugees and unlawful immigrants, housing them and considering a backlog of more than 47,000 asylum cases, Greece struggles with dwindling resources. The country is technically bankrupt and surviving on 109 billion euros in rescue loans from international lenders, including the EU, and has less to direct towards the problem.
"Greece is a hot spot because it's an entry point for the EU and that means the country needs as much support as it can get," Panos Christodoulou, who heads the Greek Council for Refugees in Athens, told SETimes. He said Greece has failed to use EU funding and that he's not confident the ruling will change much.
"I don't see any improvement … when our colleagues visit detention centres, they see they remain overcrowded. The mistreatment remains."
Mulla Nazrul, 39, of Bangladesh stands outside the National Library in downtown Athens, with nothing to do and unable to sell a few wares he usually peddles on the sidewalks because police -- who usually ignore hawkers that are made up mostly of unlawful immigrants -- are conducting a holiday crackdown. Nazrul said he came to Greece more than three years ago, sneaking across the Evros River on a boat with about 20 others who paid a smuggler.
He has a Red Card, which allows a six-month stay and has to be renewed. Nazrul said he shows it frequently because he's often stopped by the police. "They ask for my papers," he told SETimes.
"They take my things. They beat me because they said, 'You're not legal. What are you doing here?'" He shrugged his shoulders, knowing there's little he can do. He has competition from hordes of unlawful immigrants from Africa, mostly Senegal, who sell counterfeit knock-offs to people who want a fake luxury bag at a fraction of the cost of the brand name. They come across the sea on rickety boats, risking their lives for a chance for a better life in Greece or to move on to other EU countries, unless they are caught.
For many immigrants, the dilemma is unsolved by the ruling, as they feel torn between trying to have a better life in Greece or using the country to get to somewhere else. As Nazrul said, despite the difficulties, life is better than in Bangladesh. "I can't go back," he said. "And I can't go forward."
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