Greece’s Immigrant Odyssey
Pulled aboard the coast-guard vessel one by one, each man looks around, eyes wide with fear, shivering from the cold. One of the Greek sailors, who wears plastic gloves and a headlamp, speaks to the men in broken English. «Where you from?» he asks. Eventually, one softly responds. «Afghanistan,» he says, and the others repeat the word.
None have identity documents. It’s past 1 a.m., and the coast-guard captain estimates the raft left the Turkish coast four hours earlier. The men have rowed more than halfway across the strait, a few hundred yards into Greek territorial waters. They’ve made it into Europe alive. Five minutes later, the radar picks up another dinghy nearby with five more young men, and the drill is repeated. As the captain turns the Lambro toward shore, the 10 men are told to sit on the deck near four large hot-air vents to keep warm.
That scene, played out in early October off Mytilene, the harbor capital of Lesbos, is repeated nightly in Greece’s Aegean waters, where a gaping new hole has opened in the border between Europe and poorer, war-torn corners of Asia and the Middle East. As growing numbers of people flee Iraq, Afghanistan and the Caucasus, human traffickers have begun using the route from the southwest coast of Turkey to several eastern Greek islands as a back door to European territory, adding it to more familiar passages from North Africa to Sicily, Lampedusa, Malta and the Canary Islands. The number of illegal immigrants arriving in Greece has surged over the past year. Interior Minister Prokopis Pavlopoulos estimates that 150,000 of them will be picked up sneaking into Greece in 2008, more than three times as many as five years ago. Thousands more are likely to arrive undetected. «We’re facing a state of emergency,» Pavlopoulos says. «Right now, Greece has the biggest immigration problem in Europe.»
Sitting at the crossroads of three continents, Greece has a long history of immigration (and emigration, for that matter). In the 1990s Greece was the destination for thousands escaping fighting in the former Yugoslavia. But what’s happening now is bigger and more complicated.
From the port of Mytilene, you can see the lights of the Turkish coastal town of Dikili twinkling on the horizon. Further north, where the strait between the two countries narrows to just three miles, traffickers zip immigrants across by Jet Ski. But the usual form of transport is a humble dinghy or decrepit motorboat crammed past capacity, and destined to be abandoned after the crossing — if the boat and its passengers make it. In October, in separate incidents, Greek and Turkish authorities recovered 18 bodies; the E.U. estimates that 3,000 or more people die annually attempting to slip into Europe by sea. Before setting out on the patrol I accompanied, one of the Greek sailors shakes his head and sums up the situation in a single word: «Chaos.»
Consider the 10 men taken off their flimsy rubber rafts: after spending the rest of the night in a police van, they were sent to an overcrowded island detention center for between 15 and 45 days. Once they’re released, authorities are likely to hand them a 30-day expulsion order and a free ferry ticket to Athens. But deportations are rare, so almost all will fall into a clandestine existence. Some may stay in Greece, but most will leave to search for work in European countries to the north and west.
In September, authorities on Lesbos took in 1,886 undocumented immigrants, up from 925 in the same month last year and just 87 in September 2006.
Athanasios Skarakakis, 53, a Mytilene sardine fisherman, regularly radios the coast guard when he spots immigrants out on the water. And though he feels bad for people desperate enough to risk their lives in such fragile craft, he worries about the impact their arrival has on his country. «We can barely make a living ourselves,» he says. «What will they do? Where will they go?»
Those who make it past the coast guard usually seek out the police anyway, and wind up in the state-run detention center located on a dusty hilltop two miles from Mytilene harbor. Conditions at the facility, a cream-colored converted warehouse, have human-rights advocates concerned. They say detainees don’t always get proper medical care and that the warehouse is unhygienic, though Greek authorities claim to have improved the center recently, adding more bathrooms and introducing rules that allow for greater use of the outdoor area. Construction is also under way on several new centers to try to ease the burden.
Still, Giorgos Karamalis, the head of the government’s Civil Protection operations in Mytilene, concedes that he is struggling to respond to the flood of arrivals. Karamalis says he regularly stuffs the two-story detention center to more than double its 350-person capacity, or tries — often in vain — to rent hotel rooms for detainees. «We have reports of hundreds of thousands on Turkish shores waiting to cross over,» he says. «The numbers are so vast now, we fear we may lose control.»