Michalis Chrisochoidis, minister of Citizen Protection, warned on 26 March that Greece faces expulsion from Schengen if the country fails to manage illegal immigration by June when an EU evaluation team is expected.
Greece has had problems sealing its coasts as well as a 130-km are on the Turkish border, leading to pressure for a clampdown on immigration traffic. Greek authorities have reported that some 90% of illegal immigrants in the EU enter through Greece, many fleeing unrest and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.
Courts in several other EU countries have ruled that Greece is not complying with minimum standards of treatment for asylum seekers. As a result, illegal migrants who reach these countries cannot be returned to Greece – the point of entry - as would normally be the case under EU law.
Schengen countries have the option of imposing temporary border controls under certain conditions, including security threats, as Denmark threatened to do last year claiming threats from illegal immigrants and criminals.
In a reference to the Greek problem, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a recent speech that a country having difficulties controlling its borders should be "excluded" from Schengen.
France also insists that the Schengen governance be made at an intergovernmental level, instead of being managed by the EU Commission.
Attica leads the way
Greek authorities announced on 27 March plans to introduce “closed” centres for housing illegal immigrants in 10 mainland regions.
The municipality of Attica, in the peninsula where Athens is located, has already approved three such centres. In the coming months the mayors of Attica municipality will try to determine the exact location of the detention centres, Greek news media reported.
Giannis Sgouros, the Attica governor, said actions were necessary because of the "visible and immediate risk” to the Schengen Treaty, “with disastrous consequences for the country".
Under the government’s plant, the regions have one week to say whether they agree with the creation of detention centres for illegal immigrants, and to propose sites.
In a written statement, Chrisochoidis welcomed the Attica plan and expressed optimism that the example will be followed by the other regions of the mainland.
As the decision for the remaining nine regions is still pending, the Greek police and the Ministry of National Defence are compiling a list of possible areas that can be allocated for this purpose.
Sources close to Chrisochoidis said the list will take its final form no later than Monday. The Defence Ministry already submitted proposals of using some of its facilities.
However, some problems surfaced.
For example, an abandoned military camp in Amfilochia was considered as a possible immigration camp but it later turned out that the property had been granted to the municipality.
The centre-right New Democracy party, which leads in polls ahead of the early elections to take place on 6 May, is supportive of the speedy creation of closed detention centres.
"We are dealing with a national issue", Fotini Pipili, a member of parliament, told SKAI television.
In contrast, the far-right LAOS party insisted that the country should step up efforts for deportation of illegal immigrants, instead of hosting them.
The Greek news media have reported on the experience of building closed asylum centres elsewhere in the EU. A centre in the northwest suburbs of Paris and one near Lille are cited as "typical examples".
Similar centres also operate in Tenerife, the largest island of the Spanish Canary Islands, and Valencia, the third most populous city in mainland Spain.