Vol. 5 Num 1104 Mon. July 09, 2007  

Immigrants seek passage to Europe via Greek jail

Azerba, a Pakistani in his 20s, sits crammed with dozens of other illegal immigrants in a Greek detention centre but he knows the worst is over: he made it across the Evros River into "Europe."

Under Greek law, his release from this holding facility in the northeast near the Turkish border is only a matter of time.

"I will soon be out, and I'm heading for Athens," he said behind his cell bars.

Azerba, who gave only his first name, is one of thousands of would-be migrants intercepted every year in Greece.

Many come from countries in conflict -- such as Iraq, Afghanistan or Iran -- while others claim to have lost their identification papers or invent identities to avoid expulsion.

And many know that under Greek law, migrants from warzones or countries where dissidents could be brutally treated cannot be deported home or detained for more than three months, the legal limit. After this, they are released with a document requiring them to leave Greek territory.

"The Evros region has become one of the main points of passage of clandestine immigrants from the Middle East and Central Asia," said a British immigration officer investigating human trafficking here for the EU border agency Frontex, who declined to be named.

"And the flow is growing," he said.

At the southeastern flank of Europe, Greece has long been an entry point for illegals hoping to reach Italy, France, Britain or other EU states.

But as these countries tighten up, more and more migrants are staying in Greece, dodging re-arrest and drifting from one low-paying job to another for months.

Last year alone, some 100,000 illegals were picked up all over the country, said Public Order Minister Vyron Polydoras.

The figure, given in April, marked a break with earlier official reticence about detailing the extent of the illegal immigration. But now, Greece is seeking assistance.