Entering Europe is no easy feat these days, what with visas and security checks. But hundreds of thousands of people still manage to arrive illegally each year.
The southern border countries, like Italy, Spain and Greece, given their geography, are on the front lines, with a growing number of people coming from the Middle East and Africa.
Greece in particular is struggling these days, overwhelmed with people from Iraq and Afghanistan coming via Turkey.
112,000 people entered the country illegally in 2007, and that's just the official count.
Samos is one of the hundreds of small Greek islands in the eastern Aegean. Until six years ago, its sleepy capital of 12,000 people only saw foreigners coming off cruise ships and tourist ferries.
But today they have a 4.5 million euro detention center to house the 80+ people who arrive illegally each day.
[AMBI: boat starting]
It's 10 PM, and the Samos coast guard is ready to go on its nightly patrol. Captain Nektarios Kitzos and three other men are on board, ready for their eight-hour shift.
As the boat gets up to speed, the four scan the water using a radar and a thermal camera. It's dark out, and they have the lights off.
Vargelis: All these lights is Turkey.
Vargelis, one of the officers, points to lights across the water: Turkey. Immigrants come from there to Samos in rubber rafts.
At their closest point, Turkey is just 800 meters from Samos. Vargelis takes out a map.
Vargelis: This is Samos. Over there is Kusadasi.
Kusadasi, a resort town on the Turkish coast. It's where most people attempt the crossing. Captain Kitzos says the Coast Guard's mission is to patrol the borders:
Kitzos: We are watching the water for smugglers, for drugs, for everything
But immigrants are told by smugglers to slash their boats if they see the coast guard, to force the patrols to take them in.
Kitzos: If they illegal immigrants cut the boat, our mission change. It's saving the lives at sea.
From border patrol, to search and rescue.
By mid-November of 2008 the Samos coast guard had found 48 dead bodies.
About 80 people arrive in Samos each day, either brought in by the coast guard, or landing on the shores on their own. They are arrested by the police, fingerprinted and screened for tuberculosis and other contagious diseases. Then they are put into detention, where they get food and shelter.
Samos has a brand-new detention facility, built to house 350 people. These days there is regularly twice that many. Samos Vice Prefect, Thanos Stilianidis, says the arrival of so many people has strained the prefecture's resources—it has cost 1.5 million euros so far in 2008.
Stilianidis: [Translation] The whole budget for the whole prefecture is 3.5 million euro.
Samos' detention center is at the end of a winding road in the hills overlooking Samos town.
The day I visited, the sun was setting a brilliant orange over the port below, casting a glow over the center's red-roofed boxy buildings, surrounded by chainlink fence toped with razorwire.
An announcement in Arabic calls people to the dining area for a Greek lesson. Two volunteers have come up from town to teach the class. Mothers show up with children as young as two years old.
Teenaged boys come in too, eager to talk about getting out, like this kid who says he's 15 and from Afghanistan, and has been here for 18 days.
Boy: We want to leave. We don't go to school. All we do is eat, sleep, eat sleep. This is not a life.
He and the two boys with him asked me to adopt them, and bring them back to France.
Most people in the detention center are typical of those coming to Greece these days: young men from Afghanistan and other war and conflict-torn countries, like Iraq and Somalia.
Vice-Prefect Stilianidis says immigration to his island is not just a Greek problem. Few, if any people are aiming for Greece. They're trying to access Sweden, Denmark or even the UK.
Stilianidis: [Translation] This is a problem that does not only concern Samos. We are the first receptors, but it is a problem that concerns Greece as a country, and the whole European Union. Greece, or the island, cannot sustain them economically, they will try to go to other central European countries. It's just a matter of time when Athens and the centers will be saturated by immigrants.
Some would say it already is saturated.
From Samos and other outlying islands, most immigrants end up in the capital.
[AMBI: church square]
In the evenings, Afghans hang out in front of Agios Panteleimonas church in central Athens. Young men stand around smoking and talking. Women and children are in the playground next door. One man has a tray of hard boiled eggs that guys are hitting against each other, betting on whose will crack first.
Most people here are homeless. They sleep here in the square or in a nearby park.
I've been brought here by Nasim, a 24-year-old Afghan who came to Greece six years ago. He has an apartment and a job. He had tried to apply for asylum, but ended up with a visa that only gets renewed if he pays social security. He works as a carpenter and takes high school night classes. He says he sometimes takes people home from the park.
Nasim: If someone is old or children, I take someone with me to my home, just for night. At the morning 5 o'clock when I get up, I say get up and back to the park.
Nasim says people don't understand why they face the same conditions in Europe that they were fleeing from back home.
Nasim: When they are hungry in Afghanistan, now they are hungry here. They were unsafe, they didn't have security in Afghanistan. The same is happening in Greece, in Europe.
In the church square, everyone talks of wanting to leave Greece.
Man 1: I do not want to stay in Greece. We have no work, we have no papers.
Man 2: We want to leave away from here [S: how?] We know how, but it is difficult. We want to go to Italy.
Most want to move on from Greece, but under what's called the Dublin Regulation, if they try to go to another EU country, like Italy or France, they can be sent back. Their papers should be processed in the country they entered.
One of the only ways for the people in the square to be legalized is to apply for asylum--to be recognized as a refugee. About a third of illegal immigrants to Greece end up applying, either when they first arrive, or after they are sent back from another country. But the system is overrun.
Alexia Vassiliou of the Greek Council for Refugees says that Athens doesn't have the resources to process so many people.
Vassiliou: It's one building, and the staff they have there are only able to cope with 350 applications a week. And on average there are about 2,000 people on a line outside waiting to get in. And that causes all sorts of delays, problems, inconvenience, sometimes injury or worse.
In fact, on October 26, an asylum seeker died and several were injured in front of the immigration office in a crush of 3,000 people.
Even after the few who are admitted into the office are processed and interviewed, very few end up with a positive response. Greece has the lowest asylum grant rate in the European Union.
In 2007, about 25,000 people applied; a total of eight got asylum on the first try. Even on appeal, fewer than one percent were granted asylum. 2008 has been marginally better, just under two percent, but still by far the lowest in Europe.
Some, like Spyros Rizakos, a member of the Group of Lawyers for the Rights of Refugees and Migrants, says it's done on purpose.
Rizakos: You can easily grant refugee status to Afghani people, to Iraqi people, To Somali people, to Sudanese people. But they don't. Greek authorities want to spread the message: Don't come to Greece, it's hell [laugh] So uh- people finally- eventually come to the conclusion that they should leave Greece, and that's what the Greek authorities want.
Patroklos Georgiadis, General Secretary of the Ministry of the Interior, says the grant rate shouldn't even be an issue: it's low only in terms of percentages:
Georgiadis: It isn't small the number, it's small the percentage. If a country has to examine a hundred of applicants and give two or three people approval, then we talk about two or three percent. Uh- in Greece for 2007, we had uh 25,000 applicants.
But France in 2007 received about 30 thousand applications and accepted 25 percent of them. The UK accepted about 30 percent. Compared to Greece's one percent, the difference is striking.
Greece has been accused by rights groups of giving cursory examination of asylum claims, and rejecting them without any explanation.
The United Nations Refugee agency has deemed the situation so bad that it has called on other European countries not to return people to Greece, and instead, process their asylum applications themselves.
[AMBI: coast guard]
Back inside the Samos coast guard boat, it's way after midnight. Rain has started coming down in sheets outside. After several hours of looking for people in the water, we hadn't found anyone.
Sarah: So it's 3 o'clock and we haven't seen anything. What do you think is going on?
Vargelis: Bad weather
Sarah: Nobody's coming
Vargelis: Nobody's come. Maybe they will try later or tomorrow
Sarah: For you this is a good thing
Vargelis: Of course. No illegal immigrants, better for us.
As we headed back to the port, the captain told me I had brought good luck.
Some people land on their own somewhere on the coast, and make their way into town.
Maria: We see people walking around, especially in the morning, because they usually arrive late at night, early in the morning.
Maria is a member of the volunteer-run Samos Solidarity committee, that tries to help refugees on the island through clothing collections, Greek lessons and whatever they can do.
Maria: They land on the beach and they walk until they find a village, They ask where the police is. They do not know where they are They know they are in Greece, but they do not know Samos or some other island.
They eventually find the police station, where they are fingerprinted and sent to the detention center. When they are released, most leave for the capital.
And afterwards? If they don't manage to ask for asylum or find another solution to stay in Greece, they are given a deportation order.
Pasagiannis: The paper says: in thirty days you have to leave Greece.
Kostas Pasagiannis is a lawyer who helps immigrants apply for asylum in Samos. Greece, he says, doesn't have the resources to deport people.
Pasagiannis: It is uh- auto-deportation. With this paper, you can't go to buy a ticket, you have to leave Greece as you came, illegally.
So they stay- in Athens, or in western port towns, hoping to get onto a ship going to Italy. But getting out is as difficult—if not more—than getting in. So they stay, which strains the government's already stretched resources even more, causing further delays and problems.
The government has taken small steps over the last few months—they have introduced a subsidiary humanitarian protection; there are moves to process asylum in the islands. But it's likely to be too little. People keep coming.
Maria: You cannot stop them. You cannot build walls in the waters, and you cannot stop them because they don't live well where they are. They believe they come here to find a new and peaceful life.
For Radio France International, I'm Sarah Elzas.
This piece was produced for RFI
and aired December 24, 2008.
Producer: Sarah Elzas
Recorded in Samos and Athens, Greece
Photo: Sarah Elzas