Athens, Greece - For much of the past decade, Greece - with its long coastline and proximity to Asia - has been a destination for migrants from Senegal to Pakistan and everywhere in between.

Today, the majority of migrants entering Greece come from Syria and Afghanistan, with many using Greece as a transit point on their way to western and northern Europe.

Until now, the Greek government's response to all migrants without documentation has been dictated by deterrence and detention policies. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 45,500 migrants and asylum seekers were apprehended by Greek police in 2014.

But the left-wing Syriza party's resounding victory in Greece's parliamentary elections last month could signal a major shift in policy.

The party's 40-year-old leader, Alexis Tsipras, is not likely to be a traditional Greek prime minister.

Unlike his predecessors, Tsipras - an atheist - declined to be sworn into office by the Archbishop of Greece. His party continues to demand a radical renegotiation of Greece's debt to its European creditors, a stance staunchly opposed by the European Central Bank.

Debt is not the only area in which the new Greek government and the EU are colliding. Syriza also proposes a major overhaul to Greece's migration policy, which could affect how the EU deals with asylum seekers.

Syriza's emphasis on protecting migrants who have entered the country, instead of detaining and deporting them, stands in stark contrast to the priorities in Brussels.

Recent statements by Tasia Christodoulopoulou, Greece's new immigration minister, signal a 180-degree turn from the focus on detention and border patrols, which has dominated the country's migration policy for more than a decade.

Ambitious reforms

In addition to a plan that would grant citizenship to second-generation migrants born and raised in Greece, the new immigration ministry has also proposed shutting down immigrant detention centres.

These are the boldest statements to date from Athens on the issue of migration.

 Detention centres under scrutiny

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Christodoulopoulou said detention must only be used as "an exceptional measure", and promised immediate changes.

She has called for expediting the process following the suicide of a migrant detained at the Amygdaleza facility in western Athens on February 14.

"Our first priority is the immediate release of unaccompanied minors and their safe removal," she said.

"Abolishing the 18-month detention period and rescission of asylum seekers' detention are urgent measures for us."

Greek law currently limits the detention of migrants who have entered the country illegally to 18 months, and states that after their detention, if they do not apply for asylum, they should be repatriated to their countries of origin.

But, because of the lack of bilateral agreements with the countries of origin of so many migrants, safe repatriation is often not possible.

Most do not agree to voluntarily return and do not want to apply for asylum in Greece, because of the long process and the unlikelihood of being granted refuge - Greece has the lowest acceptance rate of asylum requests in the EU.

So they remain locked up, destitute and in limbo.

As a result, Greek detention centres have been filled beyond capacity, and many migrants have been detained far longer than the maximum duration allowed under the law.

Last month, 20 inmates at the Amygdaleza detention centre - most of whom had applied for asylum - were released, indicating the new immigration ministry is beginning to deliver on its promises.

However, it remains unclear how immigration authorities will deal with those released.

A lawyer by training, Christodoulopoulou is also calling for better "monitoring requirements, provision of guarantors, release on bail", and other means of legal recourse for those detained. 

The immigration minister added she wants to facilitate the integration of those who have lived in the country for years and who have formed "strong bonds with Greek society". 

This, Christodoulopoulou said, will be beneficial for both migrants and Greece in the long run.

'I am dying every day'

These policies, if successfully implemented, would be welcomed by those migrants who have spent more than 18 months in detention, contrary to Greek law.

Haji Zainab Miadid Sahib Khan, a 45-year-old from Logar province in eastern Afghanistan, is among these migrants.

He is detained at Fylakio, close to Greece's Evros border with Turkey.

Khan, like many from Logar, fled fighting between the Taliban and the Afghan army. He had been supervising emergency food supplies for a local Afghan organisation affiliated with an American non-governmental organisation, but was caught amid feudal rivalries and beaten by local fighters.

They threatened to kill him and his family "for his connections with the Americans".

"Life became unbearable," he explained. "I was forced to leave my family and flee."

I am dying every day. Maybe it would have been better to be killed by the Taliban.

Haji Zainab Miadid Sahib Khan, Afghan migrant

His journey was long and treacherous, and Khan was forced to pay large bribes to mafia-like gatekeepers at several points.

After leaving Afghanistan, Khan travelled through Iran and eventually crossed the Turkish-Greek land border in May 2012.

His arrest by border police upon crossing the Evros River into Greece was a harsh welcome for someone who had spent months trying to find refuge.

Two years later, still in detention, Khan is at his wit's end. He is among the more than 70 people locked in a 60-square-metre cell - some of whom, according to him, have infectious forms of hepatitis.

With tired eyes and despair lining his weathered face, Khan is inconsolable.

"I am dying every day. Maybe it would have been better to be killed by the Taliban. Even though I have a strong case, they keep telling me I have to wait another six months. I will not survive. They don't see me as a human being."

More than 25 of Khan's cellmates have also spent more than 18 months in confinement. At least two of them have attempted suicide, and given medication for their volatile mental states.

Khan said he is suffering from severe pain because of kidney stones. However, he said the detention centre did not regard this as a medical emergency - and accordingly, he has not received adequate treatment.

Authorities at the Fylakio detention centre did not respond to Al Jazeera's requests for comment. The poor conditions of detention centres and lack of adequate medical care have been documented by health workers and non-governmental organisations.

Human rights watchdog Amnesty International has claimed that "prolonged and indiscriminate use of detention in squalid conditions is a major plank in Greece's migration control policy", to dissuade potential migrants from coming.

While Christodoulopoulou seeks to improve these conditions as soon as possible, the UNHCR - which has welcomed the proposed shift in policy - is also calling for psycho-social support and protection for those who cannot return.

"It is important to underline the necessity for rapid examination and processing of the asylum claims of persons in detention, as well as new accommodation facilities for asylum seekers and unaccompanied children," said Ketty Kehayioylou of UNHCR's Greece office.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) states that in addition to the release of those detained, the government will also need to arrange the safe voluntary transfer of migrants - especially trafficking victims - back to their countries or to another EU member state.

This, in turn, will require further European funding.

Little public support

While Syriza's fiscal policies have the support of a country burdened by financial woes, the party is not likely to find the same level of backing for its migration policies.

Syriza's coalition partner, the Independent Greeks, calls in its party manifesto to cap the percentage of migrants at 2.5 percent of the country's population.

Currently, this figure stands at 9 percent, according to the IOM. As a result, Syriza's immigration ministry may face an uphill battle in achieving its objectives of granting more asylum requests and assimilating more immigrants.

 Backtracking on promises?

Panos Kammenos, the leader of the Independent Greeks, concedes that a small number of migrants should be accepted into Greek society - but only provided they are "economically and socially sustainable".

A majority of Greeks share Kammenos' wariness of migration, seeing it as a burden on the economy and a threat to Greek identity. According to a recent poll conducted by the IOM, about 84 percent of Greeks oppose more immigration - significantly higher than the 50 percent opposition recorded across Europe as a whole.

By land or by sea

Despite the radical changes proposed by Athens, officials based in Greek border regions such as Evros see things differently.

The city of Orestiada, which is close to the Turkish border, has been preoccupied with irregular migration for decades. 

Giorgos Salamangas, Orestiada's police chief, proudly explained they have successfully deterred illegal crossings at the Greek-Turkish border here. 

A 12.5-kilometre-long fence and Operation Aspida - a campaign of arrests, detention, and expulsion of migrants crossing illegally, which was launched in August 2013 - thwarted a majority of crossings.

According to police records, only 1,710 immigrants were arrested at the Evros border between August 2013 and January 2014, compared to 35,258 over the previous six-month period.

Although fortification of the Greek-Turkish border has deterred crossings by land, it has pushed many migrants to attempt dangerous sea crossings instead, according to UNHCR's Kehayioylou.

UNHCR found that from August 2013 to January 2014, the number of migrants arriving in Greece by sea skyrocketed to 4,643, a 214-percent rise compared to the previous year.

Europe-wide effects?

Syriza's immigration policies could cause reverberations across Europe, by offering an alternative model to dealing with influxes of irregular migrants.

Within Greece, Syriza intends to provide alternatives to detention to tens of thousands of asylum seekers and refugees, such as open shelters, assisted voluntary returns, and integration programmes.

Immigrants walk with their belongings after disembarking from a crippled freighter [AP]

More broadly, Syriza proposes a "common European immigration policy with obligations and rights" for all EU member states. Legal experts believe that a concerted EU approach is needed to provide long-term solutions to the continuing influx of migrants, and that Greece cannot cope alone. 

In order for its immigration agenda to succeed, Syriza will need to not only win support from its sceptical coalition partner, but also to gain the cooperation of Greece's security and border authorities, if its proposed policy changes were to become law.

For decades, their mandate has entailed deterring illegal crossings.  

Syriza likely has the political clout to push through changes to Greek migration policy - changes that would welcome migrants and see them not as a burden, but as a potential benefit to the country.

But whether or not it can convince a sceptical public and bureaucrats remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, groups such as Amnesty have welcomed the immigration ministry's proposals to reform the asylum system, saying it would afford migrants like Khan with more humane choices, instead of lengthy detention without recourse.

Follow Preethi Nallu on Twitter: @Preethi_Nallu

Source: Al Jazeera