- - Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Raja Souleyman called for help as the boat she and her three children shared with 46 other Syrian refugees sank in the Aegean Sea off the Greek island of Samos in the middle of the night.

But a nearby Greek coast guard vessel either missed them in the darkness or ignored them when its searchlight passed over their boat. As the coast guard ship sailed away, some fellow passengers who knew how to swim carried the 43-year-old mother and her family to safety onshore.

Like most people fleeing the turbulent Middle East and North Africa, Mrs. Souleyman wanted to cross through Greece to find a safe refuge in Western Europe. Her plan was to join her son, who is already living in Sweden. But she got stuck in Greece, where locals don’t want anyone competing for jobs, and where the economic crisis of the past six years has made it even more difficult to integrate them.

On top of this, Greece is certainly not where the new arrivals want to be.

“I want to reunite my family in Sweden,” said Mrs. Souleyman. “My husband is in Lebanon, and my 20-year-old daughter is still in Syria because we didn’t have enough money to take her with us.”

In the first eight months of 2014, the numbers of refugees and undocumented immigrants in Greece has reached 50,000, more than double the amount in the same period last year, and they’re facing dreadful holding conditions and a dysfunctional reception system, according to a report released Tuesday by Doctors Without Borders, or MSF.

The report said many refugees, exhausted and often soaked from the sea crossing, spend days sleeping outdoors or squashed into tiny police cells before being moved to the mainland.

“We have seen intolerable overcrowding, with 53 people crammed into a cell meant for six,” MSF field coordinator Kostas Georgakas said. “What little they are offered after such a grueling journey is shameful and dangerous for their health.”

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, said that in the first 10 months of 2014, 523 Syrians applied for asylum in Greece out of the 29,000 apprehended for irregular entry or stay.

As a result, thousands of immigrants are working in the shadows as undocumented caregivers, domestic workers or planting and harvesting crops in the fields at a time when unemployment in Greece stands at around 27 percent, double that for youth.

Analysts say Greece is of two minds in its policy toward these new arrivals.

“The first question is to decide whether you want immigrants or not,” said Professor Anna Triandafyllidou of the European University Institute in Florence. “Greece is somewhere in between: Greece wants them for very specific jobs, like agricultural work, but it doesn’t want to legalize the immigrants — it finds them useful and wants to keep them [without giving them official status].”

Still, Greece has been so alarmed over the situation, it built an eight-mile fence two years ago to keep the new arrivals out along the northeastern borders with Turkey.

“The fence ended up costing $19 million, since the European Commission didn’t, in the end, approve to co-fund it,” said Danai Angeli, a researcher at independent think tank ELIAMEP in Athens.

Not only was the fence expensive, it didn’t stop newcomers; it just diverted them. Today many refugees and immigrants — like Mrs. Souleyman — take much more dangerous routes from Turkey’s coastline to the Greek islands or from Libya to Italy or the border crossing in Bulgaria.

Mrs. Souleyman was lucky. Not only did she survive her journey, she wasn’t locked up in Amygdaleza, a notorious Greek detention center that opened two years ago in Athens to house these new arrivals. Detainees there live Spartanly in temporary shelters and have even gone on hunger strikes to protest the lack of food, soap, clean clothes and medical attention.

ELIAMEP found that Greece was spending $13.3 million annually to maintain Amygdaleza and its 1,800 detainees — with the European Union picking up 75 percent of the tab.

“They’ve given so much money for Amygdaleza — despite that, it’s very problematic,” said Ms. Angeli. “For example, when the state requested bids from private food companies, they say they’ll spend 1 ($1.27) per person for breakfast. So they give them a cup of tea and a cracker, because what else can you provide with one euro?”

Last month, riots erupted in the detention center as refugees demanded better treatment. In addition to security and health concerns, the camps have given rise to legal issues.

Today, hundreds of immigrants remain in Amygdaleza past the 18-month maximum legal time limit in Greece for administrative detentions — the jailing of suspects of a crime awaiting trial for security reasons — many of whom broke the law by arriving on Greek shores without visas.

“Maybe Greece detains them and treats them badly to send a message not to come to Greece,” Ms. Angeli said. “But [administrative] detention is illegal [after 18 months]. Those that have appealed [to] the Greek courts have won.”

Even so, the Greek government wants to increase the capacity in its detention centers to 10,000 spots by the end of the year.

Expanding the detention centers placates anti-immigrant sentiment among voters and the Greek politicians who court them, critics say.

“We have 1 million unemployed,” said Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras at a recent conference celebrating the 40th anniversary of his New Democracy Party. “Should we accept a million illegal immigrants? Should we open the way for more to come? This party will never allow this to happen.”

Analysts say Greece’s solution toward these arrivals isn’t sustainable: Because of turbulence in the Middle East and North Africa, the number of refugees is rising, and so is the cost of detaining them.

“To continue a policy that is illegal and to invest money in it, I believe, is a ticking bomb,” said Ms. Angeli.

• This story is based in part on wire service dispatches.

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