SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
For years, most of the Europeans undocumented immigrants have entered through Greece. Many have come from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan seeking work and refuge. They intend to settle in richer countries like Germany or Sweden, but strict border controls and a broken asylum system often mean these immigrants end up stuck in Greece. And there they face an unemployment rate of nearly 27 percent and a growing trend of racist crime.
As Joanna Kakissis reports, many are now turning to a new program funded by the EU that will pay their way home.
JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Mohammad Azaal slipped into Greece 11 years ago when he was 24. He was soon making enough money as a house painter to support his family in the northeastern Pakistani city of Gujrat.
MOHAMMAD AZAAL: (Through Translator) Each month I sent 200 or 300 euros back home to my wife, parents and my brothers and sisters. I supported seven people.
KAKISSIS: He learned Greek and eventually got a temporary work permit, but three years ago, work dried up and his permit expired.
AZAAL: (Through Translator) Now, I only work one or two days a month. I barely have enough money for my food and cigarettes. I live with five other Pakistanis and I owe them money.
KAKISSIS: Money isn't his only problem. As he waited for the bus on a recent winter day, eight men on motorcycles cornered him.
AZAAL: (Through Translator) They asked me, where are you from? When I said, Pakistan, they started to hit me. I could feel the bones breaking in my nose.
KAKISSIS: He wants to go home but not deported like a criminal, so he's signing up for a voluntary repatriation program run by the International Organization for Migration and the Greek state. It's subsidized by the European Commission. The program pays for his plane ticket to Pakistan and gives him a one time payment of $400. At least 4,000 people have gone home through this program since 2010.
Another 10,000, many from Pakistan and Bangladesh, are on a waiting list, says Daniel Esdras, director of the IOM office in Greece.
DANIEL ESDRAS: Let's face it. We're in a humanitarian crisis in Greece. And this is the only humanitarian program that we can offer to these people.
KAKISSIS: Those who sign up for repatriation must be cleared by their embassies before travel documents are issued. Esdras says he urges those who are eligible for asylum, such as Afghans, to apply for it. But there's a huge backlog of asylum applications. A reply often takes years, so refugees are forced to ask themselves tough questions.
ESDRAS: I will have a work permit? Can I get a job in this environment, and I'm a stranger, foreigner, alien whatever? No. Do I get any allowance? No. Do I have a shelter to go? No. So what's the reason why to get the refugee status?
KAKISSIS: European leaders have often criticized Greece for mismanaging its asylum system and border policing, but the country is overwhelmed and needs EU support on migration, says Sjur Larsen, the Norwegian ambassador to Greece.
AMBASSADOR SJUR LARSEN: This is truly a big challenge for Greece, and I sometimes say that once Greece hopefully comes out of the present economic difficulties, migration will be maybe the biggest challenge for this country.
KAKISSIS: Sayed Mohammed Jamil has lived in Greece since 1970 and runs the Pakistan Hellenic Society. He's spreading the word about the repatriation program to the roughly 80,000 Pakistanis here.
SAYED MOHAMMED JAMIL: More than 11,000 only Pakistani they have registered us for repatriation.
KAKISSIS: And that's just the last two months. Sayed says the program will help the most desperate in his community, but it doesn't address the growing distrust between Greeks and immigrants that's causing a rise in hate crimes. In a march against fascism last weekend, thousands of Greeks and immigrants mourned Shehzad Luqman, a young Pakistani produce vendor who was recently stabbed to death.
WASIM JAVED: (Foreign language spoken)
KAKISSIS: In the crowd was mini market owner Wasim Javed, who moved to Athens from Islamabad 20 years ago. He marched with his two young sons.
JAVED: (Foreign language spoken)
KAKISSIS: When I see people getting killed like this, even I want to leave, he says. But it's hard when you've been here for years. For many of us, he says, Greece has become a kind of home. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.