ATHENS Greece opened its first purpose-built detention centre for illegal migrants on Sunday in Athens, a week before a national election where illegal immigration has emerged as a key issue.
About 130,000 immigrants cross the country's porous sea and land borders every year, the vast majority via Turkey, and the authorities are forced to release those who are arrested because of a lack of permanent housing.
With Greece in its fifth year of recession and worries over rising crime levels, illegal immigration has become a major issue in the run up of the May 6 election.
The once-obscure far-right Golden Dawn, which wants to deport all immigrants, is among the parties that has benefitted most from the mood among voters, and is expected to win its first seats in parliament.
Greece's ruling Socialist PASOK and conservative rival New Democracy parties have also pledged to crack down on immigration to try to win over voters.
On Sunday, the first 56 immigrants were brought to the Amygdaleza detention camp in western Athens, a police official said. Dozens more are expected at the camp in the next few days, which can house up to 1,000 people, the official said.
Amygdaleza is the first of about 50 camps that Greek officials say will be built by mid-2013. It consists of dozens of containers that were originally set up to house people hit by natural disasters such as earthquakes.
"We are sending a message in every direction that the country is not unfenced anymore," Civil Protection Minister Mihalis Chrysohoidis said at a rally in Athens.
(Reporting by Angeliki Koutantou; Editing by Louise Ireland)