Greece opened its first purpose-built detention camp for undocumented migrants on the outskirts of the capital, Athens, on Monday, a week before a national election in which immigration has emerged as a key issue amid lingering recession and debt.
Opinion surveys indicate that far-right extremists, who have campaigned strongly against migrants, currently draw five percent support. That would be enough to win them seats in parliament for the first time.
Greece's ruling Socialist PASOK and conservative rival New Democracy parties have also pledged to crack down on immigration to try to win over voters. At a rally in Athens on Sunday, Civil Protection Minister Miahlis Chrysohoidis said: "We are sending a message in every direction that the country is not unfence anymore."
Conservative opposition leader Antonis Samaras said last week he would halt what he termed an "unarmed invasion" by undocumented migrants.
Facility opposed by residents
A police spokesman said the detention camp, located in Amygdaleza on the northern fringe of Athens, can accommodate up to 1,000 detainees. So far, several dozen people have been transferred to the facility which comprises containers. They were originally set up to house potential victims of disasters such as earthquakes.
Local residents have held a series of protests in response the camp's opening, saying that it will add to crime in the locality. The deputy mayor of Acharnes, located 25 kilometers (15 miles) north of Athens, said local authorities had sought a court injunction to stop the camp opening.
"I hope the courts will act quickly," Deputy Mayor Panayiotis Anagnostopoulos said.
In total, around 50 detention camps are to be built to house migrants by mid-2013.
Greece main entry point
In recent years, Greece has become the main point of entry into the European Union due to tighter controls elsewhere across the EU's Mediterannean frontiers. About 90 percent of the EU's undocumented migrants, amounting to about 130,000, cross into the 27-member bloc through Greece each year.
Authorities are currently processing about 30,000 requests for asylum. They are also erecting a wire fence on a section of the river Evros, Greece's national frontier with Turkey that is a major crossing point.
In a sweep earlier this month, police detained thousands of so-called "illegal immigrants" squatting in disused buildings in Athens. Authorities estimate that about one million migrants live among Greece's population of 11 million.
The once-obscure far-right Golden Dawn party, whose members often give fascist salutes, advocates holding politicians accountable for Greece's economic crisis, deporting immigrants, and sealing the borders with land mines. In Greece's 2009 election, the party garnered a meager 0.23 percent.
Athens University political science professor Ilias Nicolacopoulos recently warned about a surge in opinion polls for Golden Dawn. The party, he said, was "the most extreme form of the extreme right."
A spokeswomen in Athens for the UNHCR refugee agency, Ketty Kehagioglou, said there is a "worrying trend of racist attacks directed against non-EU foreigners in Greece."
"In times of instability it is always easy to look for scapegoats," she said.
slk/ipj (AFP, Reuters, dapd, dpa)