ATHENS (Reuters) - Shortly after taking power in January, Greece’s new government opened the gates of one of the main detention centres where thousands of undocumented migrants had been held against their will after arriving on the country’s Mediterranean shores.
Many of the inmates, including refugees and children, were driven to Athens and released, in what Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras's leftist government hailed as the beginning of the end of inhumane migrant policies of the past.
Now the move has created other problems. With the influx of migrants from Africa and the Middle East rising this year, hundreds have ended up like 40-year-old Syrian Dia Qasem and her three sons: stuck in the Greek capital’s public squares with nowhere to sleep and little eat.
"The only help is from God,” sobbed Qasem, a neat hazel-eyed woman with chipped red nail varnish, one afternoon this week. Qasem and her sons fled Damascus last year and, after a dangerous voyage from Turkey, they landed on the island of Kos.
They have enough money to stay in a hotel on occasion. But most nights Qasem settles down to sleep with her sons, other Syrians and migrants from other nationalities, under a tree in a central Athens' square.
Above her hung a billboard with a photo of the Acropolis and the slogan "Welcome to Greece!!!"
The migrant crisis came into focus this week after the death of hundreds in a shipwreck off Libya.
In Greece, the influx is testing the social and economic limits of a country already crippled by financial crisis.
Greek reaction to foreigners pouring into city centres, lining up at food banks and shelters already crowded with impoverished Greeks, is turning hostile.
"Where are all these people going to stay? Where will all these people go? Where will they find a place to rest? asked Babis Karagianidis, an Athens resident. "With all the internal problems that we have? We can't solve our own problems."
For Tsipras, an open-door policy on detention centres that was meant to help migrants is turning into a big political problem — largely because Greece doesn’t have the money to find alternative housing for the foreigners. According to a survey by the University of Macedonia, Greeks see the government’s response to the migrant crisis as barely passable.
"Immigration is up there with finances as the government's priorities," said Theodore Couloumbis, an Athens political analyst. "And the government hasn't got the luxury to add fronts to the problems it's fighting."
Greece is one of the main routes into the European Union for tens of thousands of Asian and African migrants fleeing war and poverty every year.
The state of the country's detention centres — seven in all still holding 2,000 people — received much international scrutiny. Greece was fined 1 million euros by the EU because of their poor conditions, which include intense crowding and no heating or hot water, says Tasia Christodoulopoulou, Greece's minister for immigration.
She says the government’s policy, and the emptying out of the Amygdaleza detention centre near Athens, was a necessity. Other centres still house detainees and it is unclear what the government plans to do.
"People that were there were living an indescribable barbarity," she said in an interview. ”It's true the infrastructure [to house the migrants elsewhere] does not exist, but it's not the fault of those being held."
Pakistani migrant Ramzan Nazeer Ahmet was held in Amygdaleza and then released. He said he slept in a room with four other people and their door was locked every night. "This was like a prison, this was not a centre. At centres you can go outside, you can play ball, this was like a prison."
Now, however, rising numbers of arrivals are posing new demands on Greek infrastructure. More than three times as many undocumented migrants landed on Greek islands in the first quarter of this year, compared to last year, according to the coast guard.
Numbers are also rising elsewhere, reflecting deepening conflicts in Syria and across Africa. But several in Greece say Tsipras’s more lax policies are to blame.
Speaking on the island of Lesvos, which has received 4,500 undocumented migrants this year, Stavros Theodorakis, leader of the centre-left To Potami party, said it was "shameful" that the government appeared unprepared.
Couloumbis, the analyst, said the government’s plan to release detainees had been a misstep of an inexperienced administration.
“I have a feeling, despite the fact that they were talking about the problems, that they weren't prepared," he said.
The government responded to criticism, saying it would transfer people arriving on Greek islands to centres on the mainland. It also said it would grant asylum requests by Syrian refugees. Tsipras also joined Italy's calls for more EU help in tackling the migration problem.
GOING IT ALONE
In the short-term, Christodoulopoulou, the immigration minister, says she is trying to find abandoned hotels and state residential buildings to house the people sleeping in the squares of Athens.
For the moment, however, most must fend for themselves.
Qasem spends her days trying to figure out how to reach Germany to rejoin her husband, a former civil servant. The soft-spoken Syrian mother, who was dressed in flip-flops and a black blouse embroidered with rhinestones, said she and her family had lived a relatively good life in Damascus. In Athens, she relies on food and clothes from charities.
"I've seen so many dead, my country destroyed. The only thing I think about is my children, and to reunite my family,” she says.
(Additional reporting by Deborah Kyvrikosaios; editing by Alessandra Galloni and Giles Elgood)