Page last updated at 23:45 GMT, Sunday, 25 May 2008 00:45 UK

Victory for hunger strikers in Greece

By Malcolm Brabant
BBC News, Leros

Eleven-year-old Salman Marufel ends his hunger strike
The children were protesting against cramped, unsanitary conditions
Eleven-year-old Salman Marufel sat cross-legged on a bed in an overcrowded dormitory and, using his fingers, hungrily devoured a plate of greasy chicken and rice.

It was, literally, the taste of victory.

Salman was the youngest of more than 100 other war children from Afghanistan who went on a series of hunger strikes to protest against what they claimed were the cramped, unsanitary conditions of their reception centre on the Aegean island of Leros, not far from the Turkish coast.

Their action embarrassed the Greek government, which is under increasing pressure from its European Union partners to improve its treatment of asylum seekers.

Late last week, the boys were visited by Giorgos Costandopoulos, the deputy health minister, who promised they would be moved to better accommodation on the mainland.

"We understand these people. We know very well what their needs are," said Mr Costandopoulos. "And we will do our best for these people in Athens."

Perilous journey

Some refugees will be taken to a summer holiday camp on the Attica coast, not far from the home of Greece's Prime Minister, Costas Karamanlis, while others will be housed in a village built for journalists covering the 2004 Athens' Olympic Games.

Salman said that on two occasions he had gone without food for four or five days.

Fourteen-year-old Javed
We were compelled to stop eating to solve our problems
Javed, 14, hunger striker

"We wanted the government to listen to our problems," he said. "I want to go to Athens and be free."

Salman may only be 11 years old, but he displays a toughness forged from a lifetime of hardship.

His parents bankrupted themselves to raise the $10,000 (5,000) demanded by traffickers for helping Salman to escape the conflict in Afghanistan, travel along the old Silk Road through Iran and Turkey, and into a rubber dinghy for the short, perilous crossing to Leros.

"I am really worried about my parents," he said. "But they will be happy that I am in Greece."

One of Salman's fellow hunger strikers was 14-year-old Javed Ahmadzi. He smiled proudly as he described their protest.

"We had been here for about 45 days and, every day, we asked the police, the government and the political people what will happen to us. But they didn't answer. So we were compelled to stop eating to solve our problems."

People trafficking

The move to Athens may not resolve Javed's personal dilemma. He is still of school age. But he wants to work to help pay off the $10,000 paid to a smuggling agent in Kabul by his widowed mother and brother.

"My brother cannot pay the money. I know it won't be easy to earn the money. But I will work in the future, and, in one or two or three years, I will earn enough money to send to Kabul. If I don't pay the money, it will be very bad for my mother and my brother."

Coastguards on Leros escort asylum seekers discovered on neighbouring islets
Human traffickers receive up to $10,000 from those fleeing Afghanistan
On the day the deputy health minister visited Leros, coastguards deposited two boatloads of asylum seekers - 60 in all - who had been discovered hiding on neighbouring islets.

Most were from Afghanistan. But they also included refugees from Iraq and a couple from Ghana in West Africa.

The going rate from Afghanistan appears to range from $7-10,000, while a man who called himself "Bashir from Baghdad", said he paid $3,000 for the comparatively short journey from Iraq, through the Kurdish mountains to Turkey.

"All I have got left is 10 euros," he said. "But I am happy to be here, because here I am safe."

As Bashir and a dozen men without shoes walked to the coastguard headquarters, a burly officer led away two small, thin men, alleged to be the traffickers.

"Falestine, Falestine," said the smaller of the two, protesting that he was a Palestinian refugee. But the Greeks were adamant that he was in fact Turkish.

According to charity workers helping the asylum seekers, the smuggling gangs have adopted a new ruthless tactic. They are now using naive Turkish boys aged less than 18 to row the rubber dinghies into Greek waters.

They pay them about $200 for the trip. Human rights lawyers claim that a loophole in new legislation allows under-age smugglers to be deported back to Turkey without prosecution.

Impossible to police

Leros, an island of 8,500 inhabitants in the middle of the Dodacanese archipelago, simply cannot handle the daily human tide.

Mayor of Leros, Timotheos Kottakis
The responsibility for what happened lies with Britain and America - they are the ones who bombarded Iraq and Afghanistan
Mayor of Leros, Timotheos Kottakis

During 2007, the total number of illegal arrivals amounted to 980. That figure has already been surpassed and it is only May. The favourable, long, summer months are when the smuggling really starts.

The Mayor of Leros, Timotheos Kottakis, is incandescent that Europe is upbraiding Greece for its treatment of asylum seekers

"The responsibility for what happened lies with Britain and America," he said. "They are the ones who bombarded Iraq and Afghanistan."

With its hundreds of islands, jagged topography and remote beaches, Greece has a coastline that is as long as the perimeter of the African continent. Its waters are impossible to police completely.

The influx of refugees has increased since Europe acted to discourage asylum seekers from targeting the Canary Islands and southern Italy.

"There is not the infrastructure in Greece to host this large number of immigrants," says Sophia Ioannou, of Medecins du Monde, which is the lead charity in Leros.

"Greece is a big door for immigrants at the moment. I strongly believe that the European Union has to support Greece in terms of funds, in order to cope with these increasing numbers of immigrants," she said.

Stopover to the West

I asked a British official to list the assistance the United Kingdom was offering its partner on the easternmost frontier of the European Union.

It amounted to little more than meetings and lectures to Greece on how to improve its human rights.

Phillipos Olympitis
Phillipos Olympitis blames the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the influx
The most kindly face awaiting the asylum seekers on Leros is that of Phillipos Olympitis, a 72-year-old retired pharmacist, who proudly wears the blue and white symbol of Medecins du Monde.

As Phillipos drove to help document the latest batch of asylum seekers, he was stopped by a Leros inhabitant who taunted him: "Just off to boost the island's tourism are you?"

"Malaka!" exploded Phillipos, using the most common Greek insult. "These people are under guard and staying put. They are not coming anywhere near you are they?"

Phillipos is convinced that the only way to stop the influx is to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We used to be overwhelmed by Kurdish refugees," he said. "But I was in northern Iraq recently and it was pretty peaceful. And the Kurds have stopped coming to Greece."

The current occupants of the Leros reception centres may be moving to Athens, but others are sure to take their place.

The frightened and the dispossessed of Afghanistan and Iraq are walking. Greece is just a stop over on their way west.

"My sister lives in Birmingham," said one Afghan as I left his temporary Leros home. "I love Birmingham. See you soon in Birmingham."

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