The country simultaneously sent 1,800 police officers to join the EU’s Frontex mission guarding the Greek-Turkish border in response to an expected surge in immigrants from Syria as a result of the worsening crisis there.
Up to 100,000 illegal immigrants are estimated to enter Greece every year, with the majority entering through Turkey. Greek officials connected the clamp-down to increased exposure to Syrian refugees and the knock-on effects of immigration on crime, including drug abuse.
Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias said that Greece’s poor economic situation meant it could not afford “an invasion of immigrants”, calling the immigration issue: “A bomb at the foundations of the society and the state.”
Of the deportations Dendias told Greek media that “it’s the best thing that could happen to them”, as they were living in miserable conditions in Athens.
Immigration always a political issue in Greece
Illegal immigration has always been a sensitive political issue in Greece, but anti-immigrant sentiment has been on the rise lately, with black-clad gangs targeting them for beatings and abuse. Such xenophobic attacks have left the one-million strong community in Greece in fear of walking the streets, Human Rights Watch said last month.
The extreme right-wing Golden Dawn party – which won seven percent of the vote this year – stood on an anti-immigrant platform and has been accused of staging racist attacks in the capital.
In a statement the party called the latest crackdown a “badly organised PR stunt”, saying that the government was not actually deporting the immigrants but misleading the public by ferrying them to other parts of Greece.
Leftist parties criticised the so-called ‘Xenios Zeus’ operation, however, and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) voiced concerns that genuine asylum-seekers could be mishandled, and denied their right to protection. "People who truly need protection must be able to request it," said Petros Mastakas, associate protection officer at the UNHCR office in Athens.
"It is very difficult, practically impossible, for asylum seekers to apply for protected status, and we are concerned that among those arrested there may be people who want protection but were unable to submit their requests because access to the relevant authorities is practically impossible," he said.
Commission welcomes clamp-down, so long as rules observed
Athens has faced criticism from the EU due to the large numbers of immigrants that cross onto its shores every year, as several of them continue into northern Europe. It counters, however, that it is forced to bear too much of the burden of European immigration, due to its location, and is pushing other countries to do more to assist in tackling the problem.
“The Commission has encouraged the Greek government to improve their border management and to step up the control at their borders for several months,” said a spokeswoman for the European Commission.
The Commission therefore welcomed the initiative by the Greek government to reinforce the control of their borders, the spokeswoman said, adding: “Any controls carried out need to be in conformity with the EU rules on asylum.”
On the issue of increased border control, the spokeswoman said that shall ensure the EU rules and obligations regarding in particular effective access to the asylum procedure in line with the Asylum Procedures Directive and the limitations to detention possibilities in line with the Return Directive.