ATHENS, Greece – More than 250 immigrants began a hunger strike in Greece on Tuesday, demanding to be legalized and challenging a Greek government crackdown on migrant trafficking.
Some 200 immigrants, mostly from North Africa, launched the hunger strike at Athens University Law School after taking a ferry to Athens from the island of Crete. Supporters said 50 others went on a hunger strike in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki.
Police are forbidden by law to enter university grounds without special permission.
The Socialist government flatly ruled out considering the demands.
"There is no intention and no possibility of a mass and indiscriminate legalization of aliens who have entered and reside in the country illegally," the Interior Ministry said in a statement.
Greece is the busiest transit point for illegal immigration in the European Union, where some 128,000 migrants — about 350 a day — entering the country illegally in 2010, according to government figures.
With their shoes neatly lined up outside the classroom, the immigrants lay on blankets and sleeping bags in the central Athens campus building, which is closed for renovations.
Hunger striker Mustafa Halfoun said he had been in Greece for six years and found it impossible to obtain legal papers. He said he worked on construction sites as a plumber but was often cheated by employers.
"There is no going back for us. ... We will win this fight or we will die," Halfoun told The Associated Press, asking not to be identified by nationality so all protesters would be treated equally.
"We are only taking sugar and water, and we will stop that too if no one pays attention" he said in broken Greek. "We have decided to take this action because we have no other options."
The Education Ministry and Athens University administrators condemned left-wing student groups for helping organize the hunger strike and demanded that the protest end immediately. Students rejected their demand.
"It's an honor to have the immigrants here. University asylum from the police is not just for students, it's for anyone who needs it," said law student Petros Satamoudis.
Greece's Socialist government has promised to improve screening procedures for asylum seekers, whose claims are rarely considered, but also toughen border protection and expulsion measures. Proposed measures include building a fence along the Greek-Turkish border, using old army bases to detain illegal immigrants and purchasing floating prisons.
Protesters' Blog: http://hungerstrike300.espivblogs.net/
Greek Public Order Ministry: http://www.ydt.gr/main.php?lang=EN