About 80,000 migrants have traveled to Greece this year and decided to stay illegally, according to the authorities, who say the country can no longer handle the task of guarding the European Union's southeast flank. While initial problems with the flood of migrants from Africa and the Middle East who are desperate to enter Europe centered on the Aegean islands, migrants are now wreaking havoc in the capital. The historic center of Athens has been riven by several street battles in recent months, involving what the police characterize as rival groups, often involved in dealing drugs, from Afghanistan, Iraq and war-torn African countries wielding swords, axes and machetes. After 11 people were hurt in one such brawl in late August, the police began 24-hour patrolling of the area. Store owners and residents are leaving the busy central shopping and restaurant district.
Thomas Hammarberg, human rights commissioner at the Council of Europe, has criticized Greece and other EU states for "criminalizing the irregular entry and presence of migrants as part of a policy of so-called migration management." "Political decision-makers should not lose the human rights perspective in migration," Hammarberg wrote in an e-mail message when asked to comment for this article. "Migrants coming from war-torn states should be given refuge." The government says that Greece grants protection to all refugees, as long as their status can be proven. But UN refugee agency statistics show that Greece approves less than one percent of asylum applications, compared with a EU average of 20 percent. According to minority groups, the treatment of migrants from war-torn states as "illegals" rather than refugees requiring protection forces them to eke out a life on the fringes of society.