Friday, February 18, 2011

The unstoppable flow

February 17, 2011

The little red-tiled complex outside the Greek village of Filakio is not much to look at. But stand next to the fence and arms start to wave through the bars. “I am hungry!” shouts one voice. “No toilet!” adds another. They cry out their nationalities—Algerians, Moroccans, Iranians. The bellowing turns political. “Ce n’est pas la Grèce, c’est Guantánamo!” claims one man. Another screams: “German, Hitler, Nazi! German dog!”

The policemen hardly resemble vicious camp-guards. They do not try to stop a stranger speaking to detainees being held for illegally crossing the border from Turkey. But last month the European Court of Human Rights ruled that conditions at Greek immigrant detention centres are so squalid as to breach the ban on “torture or inhuman or degrading treatment”. Even before the ruling, several countries had stopped sending asylum-seekers back to Greece under “Dublin II”, a convention ruling that applications must be heard in the first country of entry.

This humiliation is of Greece’s own making, but it also reflects the pressure of numbers. In recent years Greece has become the main illegal migration-route into the EU. Its border controls have been lax and its asylum-processing system slow and questionable (the approval rate for asylum applications is tiny compared with other EU countries). Hundreds of thousands of foreigners are adrift in a semi-legal limbo, sleeping rough in Athens or in ports from which they hope to get to Italy. Greek xenophobes are beating up immigrants. Traditionally a country of emigrants, Greece is unready for a mass influx.

Like a river seeking the easiest path to the sea, immigration that once flowed to Spain and Italy now courses to Greece. People first crossed to Greek islands; now they prefer the border marked by the Evros river. Nearby is the Turkish city of Edirne, the former Adrianople. Here in 1922 Ernest Hemingway recorded the flight of Greeks across the Evros during the population swap with Turkey: “twenty miles of carts drawn by cows, bullocks and muddy-flanked water buffalo, with exhausted, staggering men, women and children, blankets over their heads, walking blindly along in the rain beside their worldly goods.” Greek cavalry, he wrote, moved them on “like cow-punchers driving steers”.


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