Authorities in financially troubled Greece on Monday detailed plans to build detention centers for 30,000 illegal immigrants by 2014, a project they claimed would help fight rampant inner-city crime, deter economic migrants and create thousands of local jobs.
Public Order Minister Michalis Chrysohoidis said 30 facilities _ officially named "closed hospitality centers" _ would be created on unused military sites under a (EURO)250 million ($332 million) program funded by the European Union.
The pledge came just weeks ahead of national elections expected by early May.
"Whoever (illegally) enters the country will be given hospitality and will be immediately asked to return home," Chrysohoidis told a press conference. "Unless they are refugees ... in which case they have a sacred right to asylum."
The detained immigrants would far outnumber Greece's prison population, currently estimated at 12,500.
Greece is the busiest transit point in the EU for illegal immigrants, who cross the porous land and sea border with Turkey by the tens of thousands every year. Greek authorities claim more than a million people are living illegally in the country _ whose registered population is just more than 11 million.
The influx has coincided with a rise in thefts, muggings, and drug dealing in recent years, while human rights groups have reported a violent anti-immigrant backlash by groups of racist thugs. The phenomena are set against a background of financial pain caused by austerity measures meant to cure Greece's debt crisis. One in five Greeks is unemployed, while the economy is locked in a deep recession.
Illegal immigration has emerged as a key electoral issue.
"The current situation cannot continue," Chrysohoidis said. "Hundreds of thousands of people are wandering aimlessly through the streets, being forced to break the law, being exploited by criminal networks and deterring legitimate immigrants from staying in the country."
He said each detention center would create 1,000 local jobs, including up to 300 private security guards supplementing armed police.
The first new center is due to open next month at an abandoned former army base in northern Greece, amid protests by local residents who say there is no time to build suitable facilities for so many inmates.
While the country already has small holding centers for illegal migrants at the Turkish border, these are so overwhelmed that migrants are generally only detained for about three days before being released with orders to leave the country, which few obey.
Illegal migrants caught in cities end up in police cells for lack of specialized facilities. Athens has often been criticized for the crowded, unsanitary conditions under which migrants are held.