ATHENS, Jan 25 (Reuters) - More than 200 illegal immigrants started a hunger strike in Athens on Tuesday to seek legal residence status, in the latest sign of a growing crisis in the recession-hit EU frontier state.
Nine in ten illegal immigrants use Greece as a gateway to the European Union. The country, long-criticised for its poor handling of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants, says it cannot cope and those without papers must leave.
The young men, most of them North Africans living on the island of Crete, travelled to Athens over the weekend and settled in the Law University for the hunger strike.
“I want papers to be able to go to hospital, to be treated as a human being,” said 29-year old Moroccan Hakim Sebati, who has been working in agriculture and other menial jobs in Crete for five years. “I’m fed up with this life without papers.”
Fellow Moroccan Youssef Bahi, who has also been living in Crete for about five years and has a residency permit said the crisis had made life more difficult for migrants, with fewer jobs and even fewer opportunities to get legal permits.
“We want legalisation for every immigrant who lives and works in Greece,” Bahi said.
The Socialist government said it would not grant mass regularisation of migrants. The Conservative opposition said the situation showed the government was not tackling illegal immigration properly.
“There is no intention, no room, for massive and indiscriminate legalisation of immigrants who have entered and live illegally in the country,” an Interior Ministry statement said.
Greece took a 110-billion-euro ($150-billion) bailout from its EU peers and the International Monetary Fund in May last year to avoid default, and in exchange agreed to cut its deficit and put in place reforms to restore public finances.
The Mediterranean state granted asylum in August to six Iranians who had stopped eating for weeks. A few Afghan asylum seekers have been on hunger strike since late November, hoping to get refugee status.
An estimated half a million illegal immigrants and asylum seekers live in Greece, many of them in Athens, and an increasing proportion of those trying to get into Europe come in through Greece whose total population is 11 million.
Parliament approved earlier this month a new asylum law, which creates an independent asylum administration to oversee reception centres across the country. (Reporting by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Louise Ireland)