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Locals protest detention center in northern Greece

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A boy walks past a spray-painted slogan reading, "No to illegal immigrants'' on a wall in Neapoli, near the town of Kozani, northern Greece, Friday, March 23, 2012. Residents of a northern Greek town erected barricades and vowed Friday to man them round the clock to prevent authorities from turning a disused army base into the country's first major detention center for illegal immigrants. (AP Photo/Nikolas Giakoumidis)

Residents of a northern Greek town erected barricades and vowed Friday to man them round the clock to prevent authorities from turning a disused army base into the country's first major detention center for illegal immigrants.

Using mechanical diggers, truck tires and mounds of dirt, protesters cut off access to the army base to prevent crews from starting work on converting the facility.

The protest by residents of Neapoli, a town about 40 kilometers from the Albanian border and near the town of Kozani, came a day after Civil Protection Minister Michalis Chrysochoidis announced the base would start operating as a detention center for 1,000 illegal immigrants by mid-April.

Greece is the European Union's busiest transit point for illegal immigration, and the problem has emerged as a key issue in general elections expected in late April or early May. The country has often come under fire for the conditions in the temporary holding centers for illegal immigrants near the Turkish border and on Greek islands.

Chrysochoidis' announcement Friday also marked the launch of a two-year plan to build similar facilities in all of Greece's 13 administrative regions. While the country already has small holding centers for migrants caught crossing the borders illegally, they are so overwhelmed that migrants are generally only held for about three days before being released with orders to leave the country within a certain time. Few do.

Illegal migrants caught during sweeps in cities, however, end up in police holding cells for lack of specialized facilities. Chrysochoidis said the new centers will be used for migrants who are illegally in the country and are awaiting expulsion, and not for those with legitimate asylum claims.

But local authorities in Kozani oppose the proposed new center, describing the plan as an "election stunt."

The army base, which local residents say has been empty for about three years, stands just outside Neapoli. Protesters argue there is not enough time to convert it into a detention facility with livable conditions by mid-April, and say plans to initially house the detainees in tents are unacceptable.

"They want to create a hellhole. We will have people next door to us who are suffering," said Theoklitos Iotis, deputy mayor of Voio, an area which includes Neapoli. "How many of them will last under the sun in 40 degree heat" in the summer, he questioned. "We have sensitivities ... We can't see people suffer."

Chrysochoidis also stressed that debt-strapped Greece could not cope with the strain of caring for the roughly 130,000 economic migrants who cross into the country illegally each year, and said repatriation was a priority.

"The cost of their remaining in Greece is unbearable, both for the Greek economy and for Greek society," he said during his speech Thursday. "It unduly burdens the social welfare system, public health structures, public order and security, as well as the country's national security."

In Neapoli, local council president Christos Makris insisted the facilities were unacceptable, saying the base's sewage system was designed for a far smaller number of people and would not be able to cope, thereby creating a health risk. He also rejected claims that the center would create jobs for local residents.

"We don't want a single job that gives money based on the pain, misery and death of others," he said.

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