Other European countries must step up and help share the burden of illegal immigration by agreeing to take in some of the thousands of migrants who have flooded into debt-ridden Greece, the interior minister said Thursday.
Yannis Ragousis also told The Associated Press that a group of nearly 300 migrants who went on a six-week hunger strike demanding residence permits did not win any concessions from the government. The mostly North Africans ended their hunger strike late Wednesday after meetings with government officials.
Greece, located on the southeastern tip of Europe and with hundreds of islands within easy reach of Turkish shores, is the European Union's busiest transit point for illegal migrants and has seen hundreds of thousands slip in.
But with the country in the grip of a severe financial crisis for more than a year and unemployment approaching 15 percent, many are finding it increasingly hard to find work, adding pressure to a strained welfare system.
"It is not enough for Europe to give money. It has to take illegal immigrants too, to share the burden," Ragousis said in a telephone interview. "Because no matter how much money (Europe) gives, the pressure is so great that Greece practically ... can't cope with this problem."
Late last year, more than 90 percent of all illegal migrants detained in the EU were being caught in Greece, prompting European countries to send a multinational force to beef up border patrols. In 2010 alone, about 128,000 migrants entered the country of 10.7 million people.
And while deportation orders are often served, frequently they cannot be carried out because of the migrants' country of origin, such as war-ridden Somalia, or for humanitarian reasons, Ragousis noted.
"In those cases ... Europe has to take some of the burden by accepting the sojourn of illegal immigrants who are under deportation orders but who can't be deported for objective reasons," he said.
The immigration crisis in Greece came to a head recently with the protracted hunger strike, which developed into a crisis for the government as increasing numbers were hospitalized.
The migrants and their supporters declared victory and ended their strike late Wednesday, saying they had won the right to remain in the country.
But the government, fearing copycat action by others and under fire from the conservative opposition, who spoke of "total humiliation," insists it gave no concessions. It says it simply granted only what was already within the law — the temporary suspension of deportation orders that can be renewed every six months after a review of each case.
The claims of victory are "a lie," Ragousis said.
"The immigrants made a fake, sham victory reaction to hide the true fact" that they ended their demands for residence permits.
"In the end, the immigrants backed down, they didn't get residence permits and they stopped the hunger strike," the minister said. "For the first time, Greece is saying ... that there is no way it will give residence permits, either temporary or permanent, to anyone, no matter how much they push for it."
Greece, under the previous, conservative government, had granted residence permits to 18 Moroccans who went on hunger strike in January 2009, Ragousis said, while the previous major legalization of migrants came in 2005-2007, when about 150,000 migrants were legalized en mass.
That, Ragousis said, will never happen again.
"The country can't bear this because it would mean a constant flow of illegal immigration to Greece," he said.