Dozens of police in riot gear cordoned off streets on Thursday around Athens University’s Law School, which has been taken over by about 200 illegal immigrants who are holding a hunger strike to demand they be legalised.
Under Greek law governing university asylum, police are barred from entering university or school campuses except under exceptional circumstances. University authorities submitted a request with an Athens court on Thursday afternoon for the university asylum to be lifted at the law school, potentially paving the way for police intervention.
Authorities were negotiating with the immigrants and groups that support them to resolve the three-day standoff, which has embarrassed a government that has promised to take a tougher line on illegal immigration.
Greece is the European Union’s busiest transit point for illegal immigration, with figures showing about 90 per cent of immigrants caught entering the bloc illegally are caught in Greece. The country is planning to build a fence along a 12.5-kilometre section of its northeastern border with Turkey.
Earlier in the day, Greek Public Order Minister Christos Papoutsis ruled out using force to end the Law School building’s occupation.
“A political decision has been made – my decision – that under no circumstances will we contribute to the tension, clashes or even bloodshed that certain people may have wanted,” Papoutsis said after meeting with French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux, who was visiting Athens.
The government had angrily criticised left-wing and pro-migrant groups that helped organise the hunger strike, now in its third day.
The university asylum law has been lifted to allow police to raid university buildings only four times since the 1974 end of the seven-year military dictatorship. On two of those occasions – in 1985 and once in 1995 – police entered university faculties to arrest youths following severe rioting.
Speaking earlier in the day, Hortefeux said his government supports plans by Greece to build a fence along part of its border with Turkey to combat the EU member country’s illegal immigration crisis.
“We support the creation of obstacles to counter immigration pressure,” he said. “Of course this cannot be compared to the Berlin Wall or anything like that.”
But the plan has been met with criticism by human rights groups and a lukewarm response from the European Union.
Hortefeux made the statement after meeting with Papoutsis, with whom he discussed a recent spike in violence by far-left groups in European countries.
France is seeking information on violent groups before hosting G-8 and G-20 summits later this year, Hortefeux said.
“Traditionally, these summits attract protests … We are looking into ways of sharing information and various preventive measures,” he said.