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Greece is a member of Europe’s passport-free Schengen agreement but shares no borders with any of the other 25 nations that signed the treaty.

That has meant hundreds of thousands of irregular immigrants have been unable to cross the border into other European countries, trapping them in limbo in Athens and other Greek cities, typically in slum conditions.

Racist attacks

As the country struggles through a fifth year of recession, illegal immigration and a rise in violent crime have become central issues in the political debate. Mainstream parties blamed by many for the country’s near financial collapse face opposition from more radical political groups.

The extreme right Golden Dawn party, described by political opponents as neo-Nazis, won nearly 7 percent of the vote in June general elections, a 20-fold jump since a national vote in 2009.

The party denies any involvement in a recent surge in anti-immigrant attacks and says police should be more concerned by attacks on Greeks by foreign criminals.

In one suspected attack by racist gangs this month, an Iraqi man was stabbed in the street and died hours later in a hospital.

Anti-racism campaigners last month said immigrants living in Greece were targeted in at least 300 violent attacks from early April to late July. The rise in hate crimes is believed to be one of the triggers of the government clampdown.

Authorities are using a newly built detention center near Athens and two converted police academy buildings in northeastern Greece to house detainees, while dozens more facilities are planned using converted military bases.

Police associations argue that the massive deployment of manpower should have been delayed until more of those new facilities are ready. They cite the lack of detention capacity as a key reason for the country’s inability to deal with illegal immigration.

It’s a concern shared by local authorities in the Evros region, and many residents.

“As long as people know they can make it here and eventually live freely, they will keep coming,” said Christos Kyriakidis, 63. “Nothing will stop them.”