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Migrants, stuck in limbo, camp out in Patras

Authorities have nowhere to send the 500-600 undocumented migrants arriving in Greece every day.

Mahadi said he spent months in a squalid detention center on the island of Lesvos that was closed in November by Greece’s new government after an intense campaign by human rights activists and a series of protests by detainees. He spent a few months on the streets in Athens before making his way to Patras.

He said this month that he had been in Patras for weeks, trying to sneak aboard a boat. Those with money pay smugglers to ease the passage. Poorer migrants, like Mahadi, are forced to try more dangerous routes. They crawl into hidden spaces in parked trucks, hoping to slip through undetected.

There are few migrants in Patras who have not seen the inside of the local jail. But the police in Patras, like the authorities on Greece’s islands, have nowhere to send the migrants and no way to send them home.

Greece's new socialist government acknowledges deep problems with the country's immigration system. It has pledged to improve its human rights record by increasing the number of refugees it accepts, cracking down on abuse by police officers and easing the integration of legal immigrants and refugees. Officials also say they will stop detaining undocumented migrants in jails and will build special detention centers for them.

But the new government has also pledged to do more to protect Greece's borders. The first step toward that, said Michalis Chrysochoidis, head of the Ministry for Citizen Protection, which oversees the police and coast guard, is closing the exits from Greece — like Patras — to send a signal that Greece is no longer an easy route to other parts of Europe.

"We have decided to close the exits. There was a problem that the two main ports of Greece, Patras and Igoumenitsa, which are the main ports to Italy and Europe, were open. So we have decided to close the two ports," he said. "The message to traffickers is don't go to Greece because it's not easy for you to go to Europe."

And there are signs in Patras that this infant policy is already having an effect.

Karapiperis said there are fewer migrants in Patras now and rumors of new routes to western Europe by land, over Greece’s northern border into Macedonia.

In recent days, say Mahadi and other Afghans, the police have been trying to drive them away from the Jungle. That morning, a Saturday, the police had come at 5 a.m. and scattered the Jungle’s residents. Three days before that, a few dozen policemen surrounded the grove, arrested many of its inhabitants and tore down its plastic shelters.

“The police, they come every day now,” said Shariz, a migrant from the central Afghanistan city of Ghazni, holding up his hands together to show how other men were handcuffed and taken away.

Karapiperis said police are trying to clear the Jungle because the olive grove’s Greek owner had complained about his unwanted guests. But the Afghanis have nowhere else to go, so despite the police pressure, they keep returning.

“We just want a better life,” said Mahadi. “What have we done wrong?”