200 migrants on hunger strike in Greece

2011-01-25 18:31

Athens - More than 200 immigrants began a hunger strike on Tuesday at Athens University's law school, demanding to be legalised - challenging a Greek government crackdown on migrant trafficking.

The immigrants, mostly from north Africa, launched the hunger strike after taking a ferry to Athens over the weekend from the island of Crete. Supporters said 50 others went on hunger strike on Tuesday in the northern city of Thesssaloniki.

Police are forbidden by law to enter university grounds without special permission.

The education ministry and Athens University administrators condemned left-wing student groups for helping organise the hunger strike.

Greece is the busiest transit point for illegal immigration in the European Union, and 128 000 migrants - or about 350 a day - entered the country illegally in 2010, according to government figures.

With their shoes neatly lined up outside classroom doors, 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.

Win or die

"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 that all protesters received would be treated equally by authorities.

"We are only taking sugar and water, and we will stop that too if no one pays attention to us," he said. "We have decided to take this action because we have no other options," he said in broken Greek.

Student and immigrants rights groups said the protest was intended to draw attention to a growing number of smaller hunger strikes and protests being staged by immigrants in tents in parks and squares in Athens and other cities.

"It's an honour 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.

The government appeared taken by surprise, and demanded that the protest end immediately.

"The law must be respected and this protest must end," Education Minister Anna Diamantopoulou said.

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 a section of the Greek-Turkish border, using old army bases to detain illegal immigrants and purchasing floating prisons from the Netherlands.