Athens - Greece has passed a tough new immigration law, allowing it to impose heavy fines on people-traffickers and holding illegal immigrants for six months before deportation, officials said Thursday.
Under the new law, passed late Wednesday night before parliament went into recess for the summer, individuals found guilty of transporting illegal immigrants will be imprisoned for up to 5 years.
Human traffickers will also have to pay a fine of 25,000 euros, or 50,000 euros for any repeat offence.
Deputy Interior Minister Christos Markoyiannakis said the new measures were necessary because too many culprits were being let off after being apprehended by police or coast guards.
"Up until now, we have seen that many are arrested - just this year almost 500 have been caught - mostly smuggling illegal immigrants from Turkey, but none have been sent to jail," Markoyiannakis said.
"We think that the penalties will act as a deterrent and there will be a reduction in the flow of migrants from the east."
Sitting at the crossroads of three continents, Greece has become a main transit point for immigrants seeking entry into the European Union. The number of illegal immigrants arriving in the country has surged over the past year.
Last year, almost 150,000 illegal immigrants and more than 2,000 traffickers were arrested in Greece. It is not clear how many of the alleged smugglers were actually jailed.
Currently, illegal immigrants are detained for three months before they are issued deportation papers but under the new law immigrants will now be detained for six months.
The government also announced the creation of immigrant reception centres in Athens to accommodate the thousands of illegal immigrants currently living in the city.
Some opposition parties have dubbed the reception centres "concentration camps."
Greece's Communist Country party (KKE), which came in third in recent EU elections, said that instead of "heralding the creation of concentration camps" the government ought to allow the thousands of immigrants to go to other EU nations and to legalize the rest.
"I would like to believe that when we are ready, when we have the reception centres that we are getting ready, when we start a process of speedier repatriation then things will improve greatly," said Markoyiannakis.