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Migration woes take centre stage ahead of Greek election

A heated debate over immigration has reopened in crisis-hit Greece ahead of early elections expected in May, with mainstream parties battling a far-right advance linked to a perceived crime surge.

The socialist and conservative parties in the coalition government, who are taking flak over an unpopular EU-IMF economic recovery plan, last month announced plans to round up thousands of undocumented migrants, sort out legitimate asylum seekers and repatriate the rest to their home countries.

“Around 150,000 people enter (Greece) every year, creating an important problem for social peace in the country,” Citizen’s Protection Minister Michalis Chryssohoidis, a socialist veteran, said on Monday after a meeting with EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem in Brussels.

“Hundreds of thousands of people circulate in the country illegally,” he said. Greece, currently in the throes of a major economic crisis, is an important hub for clandestine migrants to Europe from Turkey and the Middle East.

Nearly 100,000 people were arrested for illegal entry or residence last year and authorities are going through some 30,000 asylum requests by migrants and refugees, according to officials.

There are also serious risks to public health as many newcomers arrive from areas where diseases such as tuberculosis and cholera are on the rise, the authorities warn.

The number of undocumented migrants in Greece is unknown although there are estimates of around a million, around nine percent of the population, including people such as foreign students who are in the country legally.

Many are exploited in poorly-paid construction and agricultural jobs but a large number are drawn to the main cities, living in squalor and falling victim to gangs who recruit them in drugs and prostitution rackets.

Chryssohoidis in March announced plans to build a network of 30 “closed hospitality” centres around the country, to enable authorities to clear streets and cramped police cells and enable proper screening to take place.

“All the illegals will gradually leave Greece in one direction, towards their homes,” he told Mega television on Sunday.

Chryssohoidis said on Monday after his talks with Malmstroem that he wanted to divert 250 million euros in EU funds for border protection and migrant repatriation into building the new centres.

Analysts note that the government’s interest is not unrelated to mounting anger in Athens and other cities over a rise in muggings and break-ins blamed on migrants.

“A political debate on immigration was necessary given the scale of the phenomenon… but the timing is linked to the rise of the far right,” said pollster Thomas Gerakis.

The far-right party Laos, in parliament since 2007, currently has 16 lawmakers in the chamber and was in the coalition government until recently.

The neo-Nazi party Chryssi Avgi (Golden Dawn) in 2010 saw its leader elected to the Athens city council and is now touted to top the three-percent threshold required for parliamentary entry.

And a new populist-nationalist party, Independent Greeks, is also expected to have deputies elected comfortably according to opinion polls.

Greece’s Culture Minister Pavlos Geroulanos, a socialist, on Friday gave a stark warning about the risk of the far-right entering parliament in force.

“Do we want to see pictures of a parliament with deputies being sworn in with the Hitler salute…. If we don’t wake up early enough… there will be major damage,” Geroulanos said, referring to Chryssi Avgi.

The conservative New Democracy party, which leads opinion polls and is expected to win the election, has pledged to toughen residency requirements for migrants when it returns to power.

It recently poached two of Laos’ best-known deputies for its electoral lists. Since last week, police have rounded up some 2,000 migrants for residency checks and have made over 400 arrests.

But the second phase of the programme will be harder to implement, as most communities earmarked for the new migrant centres have reacted with outrage.

“This is just a campaign for the elections,” said lawyer Vassilis Papadopoulos, part of a network defending the rights of migrants in Greece. “Reception centres for thousands of migrants need enormous financial resources,” he told AFP. -AFP