Refugees in Greece in a no-win situation
Suspended in the void — this is a fate of the tens of thousands of refugees in Greece in a nutshell. After fire in the Moria camp, on the island of Lesbos, the eyes of the world turned to migrants from Afghanistan and Syria again. What is the situation in the refugee camps in Greece?
Article originally published in Polish on RadioZET.pl at September 19th, 2020
Moria. In conversations with refugees all over Greece we heard about the camp on the island of Lesvos. It was officially a temporary detention facility, was built five years ago. It was builded for 3 thousand people. Finally, more than four times as many lived in it.
Moria camp was completely burnt down on the night of September 8–9. Greek authorities talk about deliberate arson by the migrants themselves. From the other hand, refugees point to the far-right and the inhabitants of Lesbos, frustrated with the status quo around the camp. Over 12,000 people were left without shelter. Many of them had no roof over their heads before.
Lesvos island, 20 kilometers away from the Turkish coast, is the first destination for many migrants. Currently mainly from Afghanistan and Syria. In the middle of the night, in complete darkness, they try to cross the Aegean Sea on overloaded pontoons. Before that, they had left their life savings to smugglers. Beaten, humiliated, deprived of dignity by smugglers, come to Greece in the hope of help. Instead, they are greeted: Welcome to hell.
Over 12 thousand refugees in one place was too big a challenge by Greek authorities, international organizations and NGOs. Refugees from Lesvos and other Greek islands have only one thing in mind — getting out to the mainland. What awaits them in mainland Greece?
Camp blurred on maps
Since the beginning of the year, over 12,300 migrants have come to Greece. More than a third of them come from Afghanistan — slightly less from Syria. Refugee camps are scattered all over Greece. Only a few of them are relatively close to the largest cities. The vast majority are away from buildings and random eyewitnesses.
This is the case of Malakasa camp, 30 kilometers away north of Athens. We get to the place by taxi. We get off at a small square next to a noisy highway and entrance gates. One leads to a refugee camp and the other leads to a Greek military base. This neighborhood makes Malakasa blurry in satellite images. The same is the case with other refugee centers in Greece that are established on military grounds. The camp was built for 1,000 people. There are many more living there today.
Journalists are not welcome here. Officially, the camps are closed to guests. The cause of the coronavirus pandemic. However, no one forbids camp residents from receiving visitors. The camp gate is open on Tuesday afternoon. In a small leather container next to us, a middle-aged woman looked at us — from the cash register administration. We go further, unobstructed by anyone. We are lucky. Several journalists and activists are detained even a few hundred meters from the camp by the Greek police, which orders that photos and videos taken on the spot be deleted.
Long rows of white containers are placed on the bare ground. In containers can stay as migrants waiting for a major interview on refugee status or asylum. Others have a choice of tents or sleeping on the ground. Refugees build makeshift shelters all over the place. There is always something going on — someone has just arrived hoping for better than Lesvos. At the same time others leave Malakasa and continue their journey.
We are walking with Fereshte — a 17-year-old Afghan girl who has been living with her sister in the Malakasa camp for six months. She learned English while still in Iran, from where the whole family tried to get to Europe. Without an interpreter, it is practically impossible to talk to refugees. If they already know English, it’s usually only a few words. Whole families from different parts of the world live side by side in containers and tents. Widows, veterans, children, workers, professors or former politicians.
Shermohammad proudly shows his photos when he was a TV journalist years ago. Impeccable hairstyle, fitted suit. A graduate of agricultural studies from the Afghan province of Faryab, on the border with Turkmenistan, later left the media for local politics. The position of district chief turned out to be the beginning of his troubles.
- The Taliban wanted to attack me. I managed to escape through the window and ran through several neighboring properties. I only heard shots behind me — he said. We are sitting in the shade of trees, several meters from the camp road. Every now and then a white car with bodyguards drives over it. However, they do not ensure the safety of refugees, but take care of removing the visitors and journalists from the camp.
The refugee status given by Greek authorities nothing changing in Shermohammad life. Instead, it deals with the problems themselves. As a identified refugee, he has no right to a place in the refugee camp more than 30 days. Thanks to the support of a women from abroad, he bought a ticket to Athens. For 900 euros borrowed from friends, he rented an apartment in the Greek capital for three months. When the money ran out with his family, he came to Malaksay because he had nowhere to go.
Now he lives with his family with a tent. Additionally, someone stole his payment card. On this card He got 140 euros a month to support his family. — My daughter has heart problems, she needs an operation in the hospital. It was diagnosed in Lesvos, but there was no help from officials — said Shermohammad.
“Mum, where is our home?”
Roqaye also spreads her hands out of helplessness. The Afghan woman, who was born in Iran, said her son was healthy prior to arriving in Lesbos. After Moria camp, he has leg problems and anxiety. Basic health care is difficult to get in the camps, let alone psychological help. After last year’s fire in Lesbos Roqaye with her husband and 11-year-old son, she decided to go to the mainland on her own. — My son has had nightmares since the fire. He is afraid that our tent will be on fire again — she said. The Afghan woman sheds tears during the conversation when she recalls the trip from Turkey to Greece.
- It was night. One of the smugglers said we had to move and split our whole family in different cars. My son wears glasses and has eye problems. The smuggler shouted at him that he had to run. When the son did not have the strength, the smuggler threatened him. And when he cried that he wanted to see his mother, he started beating him. On the other hand, when I asked myself where my son was, another smuggler reached for a knife and said: shut up! — Roqaye add.
The Roqaye family finally met together on the boat, which was filled with water all the time. She did not expect Europe to welcome her with open arms. But what he is experiencing in Greece cannot be called peace. — We came here for a better future, and what do we have? My son sometimes asks me: mum, where is our home? Why can’t I study here? The only thing I can do to protect my son is not to let him leave the camp alone — she said.
For refugees, like a Roqaye, a Moria and Malaksa camps are especially dangerous. Harassment, rapes and even physical attacks are not uncommon. The victims cannot count on any help. — Here are many of the same problems as in Moria. For example, a child has been raped by a man. For this reason, I was afraid to let my son go outside the camp alone. Everyone here knows the story. Most of these things happen in secret and no one reports them to the camp administration — she adds.
While walking around the Malakasa camp, we see a tarpaulins with a blue logo and the abbreviation UNHCR. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is one of the main organizations responsible for assisting migrants in Greece. Meanwhile, the refugees we interviewed indicate the passivity of UN officials.
- Every month we visit reception centers and refugee camps. We check the situation on the spot. We then prepare a report that is sent to our headquarters in Athens. In the event of irregularities, we contact the Greek authorities — explained Christina Papazoela from the UNHCR office in Thessaloniki.
Through the hole in the fence
Refugees from the Diavata camp also indicate the lack of interest in their problems. Now we are in northern Greece, more than 9 km northwest of the center of Thessaloniki. This is an exception, because usually centers for migrants are established in the middle of nowhere. We come by taxi again, but the bus also stops regularly. It is not worth trying to approach the main gate of the camp, through which even members of refugee families have problems.
- They tell me: I don’t have the right to come here — said Asadi. With him, we enter the camp through one of the holes in the fence, disturbed by no one. Asadi, who originally comes from Afghanistan, now living in Germany and regularly visits his sister living in Diavata camp.
After a short conversation, we have an invitation to one of the containers. Inside, there is a small kitchenette and two rooms — five children live together. The youngest is 4-months old. Asadi’s sister’s face shows a grimace of pain. The woman suffers from gynecological cancer. Doctors in a Greek hospital do not want to see her because she is a migrant. It is not until two years from now that she and her husband will have an interview on possible refugee status or asylum. — I really don’t know how to help her — Asadi said.
Asadi previously left Afghanistan and managed to get to Germany, where he now lives and works. His sister with her own family made an attempt to get to Europe a year ago. The woman’s husband was the driver of Afghan Prime Minister Abdullah Abdullah. On his smartphone, he shows us a video of the Taliban attack on a convoy in which he traveled with a prominent politician. Islamic extremists wanted him to inform them about the prime minister’s plans.
Escape from Afghanistan seemed to him the only option. The family has been living in a container in Diavata for six months. Asadi shows us the water pouring out of the bathroom and a fungus on the wall in the children’s room.
Behind the fence of Diavata, which officially houses over 900 refugees, tents are constantly being pitched and rolled up. These are refugees who are not allowed to live in containers. — The Greek police come here, detain people and then deport them — said Muhammad, 18-year old from Afghanistan. We hear similar words from other refugees. We asked about the cases of the Greek police. There is still no answer.
Muhammad stayed in Istanbul before trying to get in Greece. He trained boxing, like many teenegers in Afghanistan. His father was in the army, and his mother stayed at home.
— Smugglers kept me locked up for 15 days so that I would give them more money — he said. The other refugees standing next to him agree. There are many similar reports. They show us pictures of their wives and children who are already in Western Europe or stayed in their homeland.
Container town in the middle of nowhere
Most of the refugee camps were builded with a high fence and guarded against random boners. This is completely different at the Koutsochero camp, 20 km away on the west of the town of Larisa in central Greece. The camp is also on a busy road and on the site of a former Greek military base.
On site we come with a rented car. This is the only one way to get to the camp. No guards or fences. At the entrance, a still dirty plaque with information about the opening of the camp in 2016, incl. for a donation from the United Arab Emirates and a Greek flag on a high mast.
It’s Saturday afternoon. That’s why there’s no one from the camp administration. The officials work in several interconnected containers, separated from the rest of the camp by barbed wire entanglements monitored by surveillance cameras. Koutsochero looks like a small town from the inside. Children have a playground for ball games and a playground. There is also a makeshift school.
Along the main road you can buy vegetables, get a haircut at the hairdresser or do basic shopping. However the camp is in the middle of nowhere. Long rows of white containers were placed in a trough on dry soil. No natural shade. About 1,600 refugees live here, mainly from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
- We have nothing, not even nappies for children — tells us Ahmed, who with his wife and three children sleeps in one of the containers. They come from Syria. He was a Kurdish partisan. He’s wife, named Haji, is 8 months pregnant. — I went to the hospital once in an ambulance. Doctors told me that if I had no money, I was to return to the camp — said Haji. The woman does not have money for taxis to do regular checkups.
The Ahmed and Haji family had previously been to a camp on the island of Leros, also close to the Turkish coast. They slept for three days before entering the Koutsochero, before the camp administration conditionally allowed them to conditionally let them into one of the containers. Get rid there only until the baby is born. What’s next? Nobody knows.
What happens with homeless refugees in Greece? We can see on Victoria Square in the center of Athens. Surrounded by restaurants and bars, it has been a reception point for new migrants in the Greek capital for over five years. At the beginning of September, there were 100–200 people there. In the shadows of the trees, whole families stay here 24/7 on cardboard boxes. Little children on their hands, and next to them black bags stuffed to the brim. Inside, the possessions of refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq.
It’s very hard to see a hope in the eyes of the migrants living on the square. From refugees we hear about the police who regularly pick up people from the square and take them to camps. After some time, migrants return here again — at least in Victoria Square they are not closed. Vicious circle. It is only thanks to non-governmental organizations that refugees can eat a hot meal here or get basic medicines.
“Normal life” goes on right next door. Guests meet in the restaurant gardens, a few meters from the refugees sleeping on the square. The passersby don’t pay attention to the migrants. — The Greeks are tired of the topic of the site. They hear about him in the media every day — tells us a young waitress.
She has been working in the restaurant for several months, but is afraid of being fired. Fewer and fewer customers are coming due to the neighborhood of migrants and restrictions due to the coronavirus. He adds that politicians only appear in the square during election campaigns. — We hope that some solution will finally be found that is good for us and the refugees — she concluded.
The article was written with the support of Minority Rights Group International.