In the opulent settings of a central Athens mansion, more than 200 North African immigrants are slowly starving themselves to death in a bid to secure legal residence _ the latest headache for debt-crippled Greece's governing Socialists.
By late Tuesday, the 36th day of the hunger strike, 59 of the men had been hospitalized with kidney, heart and other problems. Doctors say several more will require treatment very soon as dozens have stopped taking liquids.
"We keep seeing more people who need to be taken to hospital," said Thanassis Karabelis, a doctor monitoring the protest. "The strikers' lives are in danger, and they could end up with permanent disabilities."
Another 50 men are holding a similar protest in the northern port city of Thessaloniki, where 14 of them have been hospitalized.
Most of the immigrants are from Morocco, but a handful are from Tunisia. They say they have worked for up to ten years in Greece, facing discrimination and police harassment, and are willing to risk their lives for legal status.
"This effort has stretched us to our limits," Hassan Kavvoi said in an interview with The Associated Press from his Athens hospital bed where he has been treated for the past four days.
"We know very well that this is the only way to make ourselves heard. Our cause is just but there is no justice for us. We can find jobs, but without legal papers we can have no insurance or health care if something goes wrong," said the Moroccan, who has worked as a tiler and a farm worker in Greece for six years.
"I have come to love Greece like my second country," he said. "I could have left but I hoped to stay here for ever. But I want to have the same rights as any Greek."
The men are just a small percentage of the thousands of illegal immigrants that arrive on Greek shores each year.
The Greek government is battling two years of recession, unemployment is around 14 percent and unpopular austerity measures taken to secure a euro110 billion ($152 billion) foreign loan package to free the country from bankruptcy have slashed incomes.
Meanwhile, its borders have become the main gateway into the European Union. About 128,000 immigrants entered the country in 2010, adding pressure to a strained welfare system and prompting a nationalist backlash.
To stem the tide, Prime Minister George Papandreou's government has announced plans to build an 8-mile (12.5-kilometer) fence at the main entry point on the Turkish border, which other European Union countries are helping patrol.
In Athens, officials, who fear a new influx of migrants after weeks of unrest in northern Africa, have ruled out granting the hunger strikers' demand for residence and work papers, saying that would encourage copycat protests.
On Monday, Interior Minister Yiannis Ragoussis questioned in a newspaper interview why the African immigrants thought they deserved preferential treatment.
"Why these 300 ... and not another 300 or 400,000 people who are in the same position?" he said. "It is impossible for Greece to allow mass legalizations," he told Ta Nea.
"One need only consider the prospect of boats from north Africa heading for Cretan ports with thousands of immigrants, who would start hunger strikes to demand their own legalization."
But labor unions, left wing activists and supporters have urged the government Tuesday to reconsider.
"We believe in the necessity of legalizing immigrants, and a solution can be found even at this point," said Despina Spanou, of the civil servants union ADEDY.
Prominent Greek-French novelist Vassilis Alexakis said Monday that Greece depended on migrants as much as immigrants depended on Greece.
"A wretched life like theirs is not better than a dignified death," he said at a press conference outside Parliament.
The migrants in Athens started their protest at the Athens Law School in January, but were quickly forced out. They are now living in a private mansion opposite the capital's National Archaeological Museum, provided by the owner under a deal brokered by university authorities to end the law school sit-in.
Many huddle on the polished wooden floors wrapped in blankets, under porphyry columns and decorative marble statues. The rest live in half a dozen tents on the mansion's lawns, amid portable toilets and stacks of plastic water bottles.
A Pakistani supporter in the building's courtyard who identified himself as Hanjra said while other migrants backed the strikers, there was no sign of the protest spreading.
"Those who have legal status are comfortably settled and don't really care," said Hanjra, who has lived legally in Greece for the past eight years. "The other 500,000 who don't have papers are scared. But the strikers' cause is just ... if there is no solution some people will die."
Kavvoi called on Papandreou _ who spent years in Sweden, Canada and the US during the 1967-74 Greek dictatorship _ to discuss the protesters' demands "because people's lives are at risk."
"If somebody dies, the disgrace will be his," he said. "I will be happy to die, because I will have entered history through the main door. I was sad when I woke up in hospital... I would have liked to have been in a cemetery."
Costas Kantouris contributed from Thessaloniki