Skype or smugglers? This is the choice for refugees in Greece

Ibrahim was two years into his studies at Aleppo University, on track for a prestigious civil engineering degree, when he fled Syria. His younger brother went to school one day and never came back. A bomb had fallen on the classrooms where his brother and friends were studying, in the middle of the school day. Ibrahim loved studying but he decided he wasn’t willing to also pay for his education with his life.

Now in Greece, after a treacherous sea crossing that has become the norm for Syrians fleeing the war, Ibrahim, age 24, is one of tens of thousands of refugees whose fate will be determined by Skype. Not by asylum officials in the camps, not by official paperwork, but — initially at least — by whether or not they can get through on a Skype line that by all accounts is near-impossible to access because there aren’t enough people to handle the applications at the other end.

The EU-Turkey deal was a big ask to make of the Greek government. An estimated 53,000 refugees are in Greece, all of whom can apply for asylum or relocation if they choose to. It has fallen to the Greek government to process these applications at scale, at speed and with very limited capacity. So no wonder it has proven difficult to get a decent asylum and relocation system off the ground.

1000s of refugees have been trapped on the border between FYRO Macedonia and Greece. Photos: Jodi Hilton/ IRC

For many of the refugees in Greece, unable to move forward as borders have closed and unwilling to return to a war zone, navigating the new Skype system has become their only hope. There are a number of Skype IDs to try, depending on where in Greece you are, what language you speak and whether you want to apply for asylum or relocation. In theory you call the right line and then you book your appointment.

But in practice it means waiting without end. Waiting for the window when the line is open: In one camp, for example, if you want to apply for relocation to elsewhere in Europe you have just a two hour window on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays. Waiting for someone to lend you their phone if you don’t have one of your own. Then waiting to get through on the line, calling again and again.

Of the many who have tried and tried, not a single refugee told us they had been able to get through. As Ibrahim puts it:

“The Skype system is crazy. I try to apply every day. I try so much that at night I dream about trying to get through on Skype.”

And it’s an expensive exercise. Most of the refugees fled with their mobile phones, but their funds are limited and Ibrahim tells us one gigabyte of data sets him back ten euros. These are people who left all their possessions at home when they fled and in many cases have drained their savings already.

Having lived in makeshift camps for weeks, Ibrahim has just moved into a more formal camp. It has sturdy tents, clean water, food, toilets and showers, for which the refugees are grateful. But as they keep trying and failing to lodge their asylum claims, and as these new facilities are built in the camps, they almost fear the camps feeling like permanent settlements when their own status and future is far from settled.

Ultimately there’s only one future they want. “When the war ends, we will go back. Syria is my country”, Ibrahim says definitively. But in the meantime the Skype line is their only option.

Except one. It’s expensive, it’s dangerous, they’ve been through enough of it already — but the refugees know that if the asylum system can’t help them find safety in Europe, the chances are the smugglers will.


The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and 26 U.S. cities helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future and strengthen their communities. Learn more about the IRC’s response to the refugee crisis. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Medium.