Immigration major challenge for next Greek government

Athens  - The United Nations has urged the new Greek government to revamp its migration policies to include improved reception centres, free legal aid and faster and fairer processing of asylum requests.

Sitting at the crossroads of three continents, Greece has become a main transit point for immigrants seeking entry into the European Union. It is desperately trying to cope with a surge of migrants arriving on the country's islands, which has left detention centres overflowing and thousands of undocumented migrants without shelter.

Last year, almost 150,000 illegal immigrants and more than 2,000 traffickers were arrested in Greece, making migration an important issue in October 4 parliamentary elections, after the economy and social security.

"Greece is faced with an increasing pressure of mixed migratory movements, namely migrants who seek better economic opportunities and refugees who flee persecution, war or violence," said Giorgos Tsarbopoulos, the director of the UN refugee agency UNHCR office in Greece.

"Both groups use the same means for reaching Greek territory ... there is a need to strike a balance between control at the borders and protection to those who are in need."

The UN and other human rights groups such as New York-based Human Rights Watch, have slammed Greece in the past for its treatment of migrants, accusing the country of illegally deporting migrants and often misleading them about their right to apply for asylum.

Last year fewer than 1 per cent of the 20,000 people who applied for asylum from the Greek government were successful, far below rates of 18 per cent in Germany, 11 per cent in Italy and 4 per cent in Spain.

The growing wave of immigrants pouring into the country from Asia and Africa has caused many Greeks to associate it with rising crime.

The rising social tensions the influx has caused led the Conservative New Democracy government to step up arrests with successive police sweeps in downtown Athens, shut down a makeshift camp in the western port city of Patras and to increase coast guard patrols in the Aegean.

The arrests follow the announcement of draconian legislation in July which include longer detention periods for illegal immigrants and plans to build more camps, in disused military camps, to receive them.

"In a context of increasing feelings of xenophobia and racist violence incidents, it is of primary importance to guarantee the security and welfare, in particular for those groups specifically protected by the law, such as the unaccompanied children and asylum seekers," said Tsarbopoulos.

The main opposition Socialists, who are leading opinion polls ahead of the vote, are more supportive of migrants and have promised to grant citizenship to all immigrant children born in the country.

According to Paris-based NGO Medecins du Monde, other challenges facing the new government is to put into place a comprehensive health caresystem for migrants.

"Right now the country's migrants do not benefit from the country's health care system and this needs to change," Nikitas Kanakis, the director of Medecins du Monde in Greece said.

"The lack of information, fear of being reported and cultural barriers are among the main factor preventing illegal immigrants from using the public health service for non-emergency treatment."

Medecins du Monde, which operates health clinics in Athens, the northern port city of Thessaloniki and on the southern Mediterranean island of Crete, called on EU governments to promote policies designed to grant health care for migrants, regardless of their legal status.

"Greece should regularize rather than expel seriously ill illegal immigrants," said Kanakis. (dpa)