Greek police round up suspected illegal immigrants in Athens (AP)
Greece has arrested thousands of suspected illegal immigrants in a drive to combat what one government official compared to a prehistoric invasion.
Greece has long been Europe's main entry point for illegal immigrants from Asia and Africa seeking a better life in the West. But its severe economic problems and high unemployment are making the problem worse than ever.
Around 6,000 people were detained over the weekend in Athens in a massive operation named after the ancient Greek god of hospitality, Zeus Xenios.
Officers across the city stopped mostly African and Asian people in the street for identification checks. Most were only briefly detained, but about 1,600 were arrested for illegally entering Greece and sent to holding centres pending deportation.
Left-wing opposition parties criticised the crackdown, while the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees voiced concern that migrants from war-torn countries and genuine asylum-seekers could be denied the right of protection.
Some 100,000 illegal immigrants are estimated to slip into Greece every year, mostly from neighbouring Turkey, and up to a million are believed to live in Greece, which has an official population of about 10 million.
The uncontrolled influx, which coincided with a recent rise in crime, contributed to the sharp rise of an extreme-right political party which uses aggressive rhetoric against immigrants. Once beyond the pale of Greek politics, the extreme right Golden Dawn gained nearly 7% of the vote in parliamentary elections six weeks ago. Mainstream parties also pledged to curtail immigrant flows.
Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias said the rounding-up of illegal immigrants would continue, arguing that their unchecked entry brought Greece "to the brink of collapse." "The country is being lost," he said. "What is happening now is (Greece's) greatest invasion ever. Since the Dorian invasion some 3,000 years ago, the country has never received such a flow of immigration."
Ancient tradition linked the invasion of Greek-speaking Dorian tribes with the end of the heroic Mycenaean age, although historians believe that the Mycenaean palatial civilisation was brought down by financial and social unrest.
Mr Dendias said arrested immigrants will be temporarily held at police academy buildings in northern Greece, which are closed for the summer, and at a detention centre outside Athens. He claimed that by the end of the year Greece will be able to detain up to 10,000 people.