More than a third of the 240 North African immigrants on hunger strike in a central Athens mansion for the past 37 days have been hospitalized with severe health problems, say members of a migrant support network.
Doctor Thanassis Karabelis said Wednesday that 81 of the 240 mostly Moroccan men required hospital treatment, mostly for dehydration, kidney and heart problems and "it is quite likely" more will be taken to hospital in the next few hours.
The men are fasting in a bid to secure elusive residence permits. Dozens have also been refusing liquids since the weekend. They have been joined by 50 men in the northern port city of Thessaloniki, 17 of whom have also been hospitalized.
The government has refused to grant the migrants' demands, saying they entered Greece illegally and granting them legal status would only encourage other such protests. Strikers counter that they have worked for up to ten years in the country, suffered discrimination and police harassment, and are willing to risk their lives for legal papers.
In recession since 2009, debt-crippled Greece narrowly avoided bankruptcy last year through a euro110 billion package of foreign loans through mid-2013. In exchange, the government took tough austerity measures, cutting pensions and salaries while increasing taxes and retirement ages.
Greece is the main gateway into the European Union for tens of thousands of illegal immigrants. About 128,000 entered the country of 10.7 million in 2010 alone, adding pressure to a strained welfare system and prompting a nationalist backlash in the face of rising unemployment.
Left-wing groups have taken up the strikers' cause, and on Wednesday some 50 people held a peaceful protest outside the Ministry for Macedonia and Thrace in Thessaloniki, with several chaining themselves to the building's fence. Others hung a banner from the ministry reading "(Prime Minister George) Papandreou's government commits murders."
Two groups of about 30 people also staged brief sit-ins at the private offices of Greece's defense and justice ministers in Thessaloniki.
Costas Kantouris contributed from Thessaloniki