- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 3, 2013

Greece has been hit by a “devastating” wave of illegal immigration from chaos induced by Arab Spring uprisings in North Africa and continued instability in South and Central Asia, according to Athens’ Ambassador to the United States Christos P. Panagopoulos.

“For a country of 10.11 million, to have 1 million [immigrants], most of them illegal in a period of hardship and economic crisis, it’s devastating,” he told editors and reporters of The Washington Times.

Greece, also suffering from economic upheaval because of a huge national debt, has imposed stiff austerity measures, precipitating a recession that has left the country with an unemployment rate of more than 25 percent and public unrest.

Mr. Panagopoulos said most of the illegal immigrants came from countries in “destabilized regions,” like Pakistan, Afghanistan and more recently Libya and Syria, the latter engulfed in a 23-month-long civil war. Most entered Greece across the short land border or long, island-dappled maritime frontier with Turkey.

“Unfortunately, our Turkish friends are not very cooperative on this issue,” he said.

Turkey had sought to link cooperation on border enforcement against third-country nationals to what the ambassador called the “unrelated” issue of visa-free travel into Greece by Turkish citizens, leading to an impasse on the question.

“Most of these people,” Mr. Panagopoulos said of the illegal entrants, do not see Greece as their final destination.

“They are not [aiming to stay in] Greece because they know there is an economic crisis [there.] They use Greece as a transit [point] to other European countries … and eventually to Germany, which is where most of them hope to get to,” he said.

But the ambassador said that barriers such as the Balkan mountains to the north and border control agents on the ferries to Italy block their goal of reaching Germany.

“Ninety-nine percent, they stay in Greece,” he said.

Because many claimed asylum under international refugee conventions, they cannot be legally deported without a lengthy and expensive legal process. While they remain, Mr. Panagopoulos said, “They have needs” for food, shelter and clothing.

“Under the current circumstances, Greece cannot afford this burden by itself,” he said, adding that Greece has raised the issue with European Union officials.

“Up to now — let me say cynically — that we get all the good words; but when it comes to practical measures, we don’t have that much support,” he said of Greece’s EU partners.

Greece has also failed to persuade other European nations that the wave of illegal immigration is also their problem.

“If you reside in France or the Nordic countries, you will think, ‘Oh, it’s a bad thing, but it doesn’t affect me,’” he said.

More than 22,000 people were caught trying to cross into the European Union in the last three months of 2012, with nearly 9,000 of them attempting to come through the Greek-Turkish frontier, according to the EU border-control agency Frontex.

Analysts generally say that cross-border apprehensions are an imperfect measure of illegal migration, because the number excludes those who successfully sneak across. But most agree it is one of the better measures available, at least to detect trends.

Mr. Panagopoulos said up to 300 people every day successfully cross the Turkish border into Greece illegally, calling the number the equivalent of the population of a small Greek village.

“It is a village every single day,” he said. “It’s devastating for a small country such as ours

According to Frontex, the most common nationalities caught trying to enter the EU in the first half of 2012 were Afghans, Algerians, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis. But later in the year, Frontex detected a huge jump in the number of immigrants from Syria.

“Some of them are coming as a result of the aftermath of the Arab Spring,” the ambassador said.

• Shaun Waterman can be reached at swaterman@washingtontimes.com.

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