Monday, May 4, 2009

PATRAS, Greece — Every day since he arrived in Greece two years ago, Mohamadi al-Raza has woken up in this port city wishing he could make it across the Mediterranean to Italy.

The 24-year-old Afghan refugee, who said he fled his country “because of the wars, the mafias and the Taliban,” has lived for months inside a makeshift refugee encampment - a five-minute walk from the barbed-wire gates of the port.

Like thousands of other Afghan refugees, Mr. al-Raza is stuck on the threshold of Western Europe, because he landed first in Greece. Rules in the European Union won’t let him go any farther.

As part of his daily routine, Mr. al-Raza tries to creep into one of the trucks that leave the port on ferriesfive times a day for the Italian coast and comes back at night after another failed attempt. “It’s like a regular job,” he said.

However, it’s hard to imagine anything further from normalcy. Littered with trash bags, broken chairs and decaying food, the “Afghan camp” provides the most rudimentary living conditions.

A few pipes supply water for drinking, bathing, laundry and dishwashing. Young men squeeze into tiny cabins of the foul-smelling shantytown, where no women or elders can be found.

“It’s very difficult to live here,” the refugee said.

Mr. al-Raza is one of about 1,300 Afghans in the encampment. Local nongovernmental organizations say most paid about $13,300 to smugglers to reach Patras, passing through Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and the Greek islands of the Aegean Sea.

According to the Patras coast guard, the Afghans are among 4,000 illegal immigrants waiting for a chance to sneak out of Greece. The others come from elsewhere in South Asia, Iraq and Somalia.

“What we see in Patras is the failure of the asylum system in Greece and in Europe in general,” said Nikos Koblas, a lawyer working with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, who describes the European system as “unfair.”

Under EU rules, the first country an immigrant reaches is supposed to deal with asylum requests. However, Greece, which claims it has become the most targeted entry point into the European Union, is hardly ever the refugees’ preferred destination. Most would rather live in Germany, France, Britain or Sweden.

Prevented from going beyond Greece and unwilling to return home to poverty or war, these migrants are stuck in Patras, a cul-de-sac on the threshold of Europe.

Officials at Patras said they feel insufficiently supported by their neighbors in guarding Europes borders and containing massive waves of migrants.

“Greece has an enormous burden to carry on behalf of the European Union,” said Capt. Athanasios Athanasopoulos, the head of the coast guard in Patras. Greek authorities say 146,500 illegal immigrants crossed its borders in 2008.

“There are unbelievable ways how they can sneak out,” Capt. Athanasopoulos added. Coast guard officers regularly discover migrants squeezed like sardines in luggage bags. Two weeks ago, two refugees who had found a hide-out in a sealed double-decker truck started suffocating and banged on the walls for help.

“They would have been dead if the patrol hadn’t heard them,” Capt. Athanasopoulos said.

He estimated that port police can catch as many as 1,000 illegal immigrants a day but could not say how many make it to Italy.

Mr. al-Raza managed to get to Italy once, only to be sent back to Greece.

“I’ve made it to Rome,” the young man said proudly. “I went to the police because I wanted to get documents and stay in Italy,” he said.

Italian authorities uncovered his tracks from Greece and sent him back, along with hundreds of other migrants.

The wave of illegal immigrants has put enormous strain on Patras, a city of 223,000, better known as a commercial hub and the place for a tourist-attracting carnival.

“At first, people were helpful with the migrants,” said Kristos Karapiperis, an official with the Greek Red Cross. But in 2006, the settlement reached an unprecedented size and people started to get afraid, he said.

“People actually began to see the camp,” which prompted protests amid the local population, he said, especially among truck drivers and employees of the ferry companies who resent the delays and the financial losses from illegal immigration.

“It’s creating a huge societal and economic problem,” said Konstantinos Bitsios, the general secretary of the Greek Interior Ministry. “I’m not ashamed to say we cannot cope with it,” he said, referring to the rise in asylum seekers and other illegal immigrants.

Mr. Bitsios said Greece wants to improve the coordination between the countries of origin, transit and destination.

“We’re trying to improve the structures, but that’s not the solution to the problem,” he said.

The Greek government last year introduced a plan to create a detention center for 1,000 people at Drepano, near Patras, but analysts say there is little hope that the residents of the Afghan camp will move away from the port.

“They are poor, exploited and seeking a better life,” Mr. Bitsios said. “Greeks left Greece after the Second World War. We immigrated because we were poor; it’s the same story.”

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