Greek port on edge as migrants try to stow away

PATRAS, Greece – The migrants bolted across a street and clambered over a fence into the Greek port at Patras, scouting around for trucks to stow away in.

Dozens at a time scaled a 2km stretch of fence one afternoon last week, playing cat-and-mouse with police officers who pushed them back only for the men to try again hours later.

They are part of a growing number of migrants in Greece trying daily to smuggle themselves onto ferries at Patras to get to Italy. It’s a dangerous passage but it has become more appealing since the closure in 2016 of the overland Balkan route to northern Europe.

A few hundred, mostly young Afghan or Pakistani men, squatted in abandoned factories facing the port and showered in water that ran yellow from rusty pipes.

“Get down! Get down from there!” an officer with the coast guard’s special forces squad yelled at a man peering at him from the undercarriage of a truck lined up for embarkation control, who was then handcuffed and escorted away.

Authorities arrested 760 people hiding in trucks or carrying forged travel documents at Patras in January and February, close to a third of the total of 2627 arrests in 2017, according to official data. In 2016, 1040 people were arrested.

Those arrested are held at most overnight before they are released, and many try their luck again the following day.

Images from an X-ray van showed hideouts not visible to the naked eye: two men were discovered lying on their backs in a fuel tank. Another crouched beneath watermelons.

The route from Patras, one of two ports linking Greece to Italy, is not new but when Europe’s refugee crisis began in 2015 and nearly a million people landed in Greece on boats, taking the overland road to countries like Germany was a safer option.

When those borders closed in March 2016 and a European Union deal with Turkey stranded over 50,000 refugees and migrants in Greece, Patras started buzzing again, said Dimitris Kyriakoulopoulos, a coast guard captain overlooking the port.