An estimated 100,000 people from Asia, Africa and the Middle East pass though Greece to reach the European Union every year. But anti-immigrant sentiment is growing with Greece in the throes of a major economic crisis.
Hundreds of immigrants from many different continents staged a protest against this mounting discrimination in Athens last month.
Many of them, fleeing conflicts in their homelands, paid $4,000 to smugglers to get them into the European Union.
Tanzanian house cleaner Salum Mbundi has been living in Greece legally for 12 years. He is one of many immigrants demanding permanent residence papers.
"We need stable papers," Mbundi said. "We need rights in working place, because we don't get same rights as the Greeks."
Immigrants are also calling on the government to make good on its promise to offer citizenship to children of immigrants born in Greece, and to those who have been living here legally for more than five years.
But the proposal, introduced by the new socialist government of Prime Minister George Papandreou, has caused widespread indignation. Comments on the government Web site reflect a sudden surge in xenophobia. One commenter wrote that "the motherland is endangered".
A poll taken last week for an Athens newspaper showed that nearly 60 percent of Greeks believe immigration is harmful to the country and is tainting national identity. Nearly 50 percent believe immigrants are taking Greek jobs.
An Anti-Immigrant Response
Days after immigrants filled the streets of Athens in protest, the nationalist group Golden Dawn held a rally in the same city. Militants waved flags with the Celtic cross, a fascist symbol throughout Europe. Muscular young men wielding baseball bats discouraged photographers from doing their job.
A speaker exhorted the crowd to rise up like a flame against the idea of a multiethnic Greece. As nationalist songs played in the background, demonstrator Pavlos Benakis said that immigrants should not have the same rights as Greeks.
"Not to go to elections, to be in the parliament, to be a minister; we don't want this," Benakis said. "We don't want a mayor from Pakistan to take a decision about my city. You are born Greek, you can't be Greek."
Seventy percent of migrants entering the European Union every year arrive through the Greek archipelago.
Most of the hundreds of thousands who came in recent years moved on to other European countries. But now with the economic downturn, jobs in the richer countries of northern Europe are scarce, and many new arrivals stay in their first port of entry.
Micky van Gerven, mission chief of Doctors Without Borders, says the Papandreou government has shown a willingness to extend certain benefits and rights to immigrants, but the economic crisis is an obstacle.
"The country is nearly bankrupt," van Gerven says. "For Greek authorities to tackle the problem is difficult; there is hardly any money available."
But van Gerven does not believe Greeks are particularly racist.
"I don't think it is worse here than anywhere else, but it is increasing," she says. "And it is very, very worrying, obviously."
Many Greek commentators say that, as a front-line state, the immigration issue is too big for Greece to tackle alone. They call on the European Union to stop looking the other way and finally seek a common solution.