Waiting for the Next Chapter to Begin: Everyday Life for Refugees At Viktoria Square
Not unlike the days of the peak of the refugee crisis in 2015, many migrants are once again calling the streets of Athens home in large numbers. This time, they must interact with a more conservative government as they navigate their new lives in Greece. For many, even the events of the next day are uncertain. Here are their stories.
Translation assistance provided by Aziz A. and Ebrahim Zamani.
Lives for migrants or refugees in Greece are very difficult. Once one has arrived in Greece after a likely long and difficult journey, the process to apply for the right of asylum can take many months or even years. If one’s application for asylum is rejected, furthermore, one may well be deported.
Often away from friends and family, many face uncertainty for their futures as they start their new lives in a world completely different than the one they knew previously.
The New Legal Framework and Worsening Living Conditions for Migrants
Over 75,000 migrants arrived in Greece last year, according to the UNHCR. While fewer have arrived in 2020, in part due to the pandemic’s impact on movement globally, the islands, and especially Samos and Lesvos, have been overwhelmed by new arrivals.
Unfortunately, living conditions for migrants are worsening in a time of crisis, as the conservative Mitsotakis government has made its intentions to tighten Greece’s immigration regulations clear.
Since Kyriakos Mitsotakis has been in power, he has made a point to argue that it is now time for the European Union to shoulder more of the burden of the continent’s refugee crisis. Such goals of the New Democracy government, therefore, include limiting asylum to only true “refugees,” and therefore deporting those Mitsotakis and other conservatives argue have only come to Greece for economic opportunity.
As has been demonstrated by the new refugee housing scheme, ESTIA II, having about thirty percent less funding than its older counterpart, ESTIA, such plans also include providing less support for migrants who already call Europe home.
As per its new framework, the Greek government now expects those who have been granted asylum to make a living much more quickly. While refugees used to have a six month grace period to transition into Greek society upon receiving asylum, asylum grantees now only have one month before losing support. The new rule went into effect on 1 June, and many have since been kicked out of their existing accommodations or have otherwise been cut off from assistance.
The Greek government argues that the measures are necessary to ensure that housing for asylum seekers, especially on the islands, is less congested in the short term. Furthermore, in the time of a pandemic, there is fear that the virus could spread quickly through many of the camps of the islands.
There is no denial that migrant camps on the islands are in unacceptable condition. Many are overcrowded, unsanitary, and at times outright unsafe for many of their residents. The Moria camp on Lesvos, a facility built for only 2,200, held over 18,000 people in February of this year. Women and LGBTQ+ migrants, meanwhile, have also reported that they do not feel safe from the threat of sexual violence at such facilities, inside or outside of the mainland. Others have been murdered or committed suicide because of the detention.
In certain cases, the Greek government has even resorted to using degrading makeshift locations as facilities for migrant housing: this March, for example, refugees were detained in “Rhodos,” a navy warship at the port of Mytilini, before being transferred to the facility at Malakasa.
It is clear that there is a need to provide dignified housing to more persons, and as such, the government has prioritized the idea of moving migrants who live in the island accommodations to stay in the mainland.
But by cutting asylum-grantees off from housing so soon to accomplish such a task, many argue that in turn, those who successfully obtain asylum still have not been given the resources to integrate on their own. With limited Greek knowledge, many face discrimination when trying to find work or housing. With only thirty days until support is cut off due to the new rule, precious time to secure work and a place to stay is ticking for anyone who’s been fortunate enough to finally receive asylum.
Unfortunately, such rules come at a time in which even many native Greeks struggle to obtain employment and reasonable housing. And while the pandemic appears to be under control at the moment in Greece, furthermore, its persistent presence means that if the situation were to worsen, many refugees would find themselves particularly vulnerable.
Lesvos: Migrants Face Discrimination and Even Legal Punishment
In recent months, the Greek government has taken a more conservative approach to migration as Turkey has moved to allow migrants to leave its borders. This has led to common occurrences of Greek authorities pushing, or even completely breaking, the boundaries of international and E.U. law alike.
Tensions rose in late February when footage of members of the Greek Coast Guard shooting at a refugee boat was made public, garnering international attention and criticism. Known as a pushback, the action is illegal under European Union law.
Unfortunately, such kinds of actions against migrants have only increased in frequency in recent months. Some migrants even allege that the Greek government has moved to even illegally deport migrants back to Turkey.
Notably, criminal charges for unauthorized entry had been pressed against over 800 asylum seekers who arrived in Lesvos in March 2020, during which time the Greek government had suspended the submission of new asylum applications, in violation of international and European law.
The Parliament had voted to suspend asylum applications for the 1st of March on 26 March 2020. The order expired at the end of March and has not been in effect since, and the Ministry of Immigration and Asylum’s press office has released a statement stating that the 800 persons charged would be given access to the standard procedures of the asylum-seeking process.
Despite the government’s backpedaling on its decision, such a flagrant violation of international law has led to human rights groups speaking out on the matter. At the beginning of March, the UNHCR released a statement noting that there was no legal basis for the government’s decision to suspend asylum applications under either E.U. law or the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.
Viktoria Square: the Re-Emergence of the Far Right in the Heart of Athens’ Centre
The cruelty against migrants has not stayed on the islands, however, and is also present in city centers. Due to the evictions from existing housing accommodations starting from the beginning of this June, many refugees have found themselves without a home in the middle of a hot summer.
Many in or near Athens without a place to stay comfortably have gone to Viktoria Square in the center of Athens for refuge. Many, though certainly not all, of these refugees have the special blue stamp in their temporary travel documents, which means that they have been granted asylum and that they have the right to move freely through the country of Greece. As such, and with few resources to make it on their own, many have actively chosen to stay at Viktoria Square.
The Mitsotakis government has responded to the situation with force and unfriendliness alike. In recent weeks, law enforcement has come to Viktoria square several times late at night or early in the morning to carry out evictions against the migrants’ will.
The MAT (Units for the Reinstatement of Order) and the DIAS (the motorcycle unit of the police, or the “two-wheeled police teams”) have been seen at such evictions. At times, encounters with law enforcement have led to violent arrests and evictions of migrants and counter-protesters alike. A young man who was interviewed said that he and a friend had been beaten by the police with batons during an attempted eviction early in the morning on 20 July in the square.
Even when they do not come to evict the people at the square, some refugees pointed out that law enforcement is often present. It was noted by a young man at the square that sometimes, large numbers of the police force’s motorcycle unit drive around the square, apparently to intimidate.
Members of the general public have responded to such evictions and occasional brutality, protesting in solidarity with the migrants calling the square home. Unfortunately, recent events have also emboldened the right-wing.
In fact, there was a demonstration on 15/7 by extreme right-wing, racist “neighborhood committees” groups who gathered at Plateia Viktorias.
An anti-fascist demonstration had taken place earlier in the same day to counter the anticipated rally. Many people at the demonstration were arrested, and some were even beaten by police, during the anti-fascist demo.
The square was largely empty of migrants during the day on 15/7; according to people present at an anti-fascist demonstration, many had already been evicted from the space. They said that many had been sent against their will to the Amygdaleza detention camp, outside Athens. Notably, the Viktoria park benches were recently removed to make the space more hostile for those wanting to stay at the square.
Stories from Viktoria
While there were not many refugees present at the square on 15/7, there were many staying at Viktoria just one week later. While many refugees we spoke with on the 22nd, 24th of July, and onwards were able to provide more information about the evictions periodically taking place at Viktoria Square, others were eager to share their stories, and in particular their difficulties in navigating access to resources in Greece.
At a Viktoria Square sans benches, many who call the square their home sit on blankets, covers, and even cardboard. Many have their personal belongings with them, which are often stored in large trash bags, or suitcases.
The lucky have pillows and blankets to sleep with at night. During the day, however, such items are of little help in the hot sun, where it has often been over thirty-five degrees celsius.
Many refugees, some staying at Viktoria Square for as little as three days but others for as long as a month, have felt unable to address their issues due to a lack of government assistance. Namely, many are waiting on paperwork or important information from the government, such as a tax number.
Others, however, are struggling to get the asylum process started. One young man from Afghanistan, 14, had crossed the Turkish border by foot at the border at Evros, and had been at Viktoria Square for two days. Now finding himself in Athens and hoping to seek asylum, he went to a police station near Viktoria Square to learn what to do next. Rather than provide suggestions or information about applying for asylum, the police instead asked if he wanted to be put into handcuffs and placed into jail.
“We can go to the IOM [the International Organization for Migration], who has an office near Viktoria,” said the fourteen-year old’s friend. “They open up 9:30 on Monday morning. We can go sit outside their office until they see us, after which they’ll be able to schedule an [official] appointment to see us a month or two later. Are we just supposed to sit outside in the meantime?”
The reality is that paperwork, calling numbers, and sitting around and waiting, are often continuous burdens for many refugees on the square.
Such is particularly true for one family, a mother and her six children, from Afghanistan. They fled the country after the woman’s husband had been murdered by the Taliban. The mother had paperwork from the Greek government, which said that their interview for asylum was scheduled for October 2021. Such late dates, according to refugees at the square, are not uncommon.
She is currently looking for housing in Athens but is in a difficult situation because she is still waiting to receive her AFM (tax number) from the government. Without one, most landlords will not accept tenants. The woman is eligible to receive funding from the Helios program, a housing assistance program organized by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) when she can finally get an apartment. Unfortunately, the program will only offer her and her several children a total of 630 euros per month. As the woman pointed out, financial assistance when she does receive it, will not be enough to buy food and pay for housing for seven people.
Housing Discrimination and Every Day Barriers Against Integration
Aziz A., 16, who helped translate the stories of many refugees living at or around the square, is originally from Afghanistan. Like many others who live on the square, he and his family have been looking for housing.
While some at the square are waiting for their asylum interview, many actually do have asylum, Aziz said. Unfortunately, many find that their new status is not doing much to help them navigate life in Greece. Just like the Afghani woman fortunate to have support from the Helios program, many others are waiting for their AFM (tax number).
But, as Aziz also explained, waiting around to get the proper paperwork often is not enough to ensure one can get housing.
“Many people here [at the square] actually have an AFM, but no one will rent to us. I call and they say, “Sorry, but we cannot rent to refugees.”
When calling to ask about a rental property, Aziz says he is often asked by landlords about where he and his family are from. When he explains his family is made up of refugees, many landlords often refuse to even set up an apartment viewing.
Aziz is currently looking for his family of four people, and for his cousin, who also has a child. He often has his eyes peeled for new apartment flyers around the area. “Today I called the numbers for ten apartment listings,” he said, laughing. “None of them took me!”
Like Aziz’s family, many of the people who have arrived at Viktoria square are affected by blatant discrimination. Many others have been directly impacted by the recent changes in Greek law, through which many refugees are being cut off from their own accommodations in camps around the country.
The Qasimi family of six, including four children, had been at Viktoria square for three days, after living in the Moria camp on Lesvos. They explained that many refugees, like themselves, had been evicted from Moria.
They, like many others, had been given a total of ten-days notice from the camp that they would have to leave. Such a phenomenon, they said, had been ongoing in the camp since June, when the camp’s office opened back up after the lockdown. According to the family, about 100 refugees were sent such notice each week at the camp as summer blazed on.
Now, the family resides at Viktoria, unsure of what will happen next.
“We don’t want to stay here,” said Mr. Qasimi, who explained that they were not allowed to go to another European country if their asylum process was to continue. The family is currently waiting for their interviews for asylum in Greece, scheduled for later next year. Such late interview dates are common. “But we cannot leave [Greece, for another country] either, or we will be deported. We are not being given a choice except to wait.”
The family’s other concern is the lack of access to running water and restrooms at the square, especially at a time of the pandemic. “It’s not clean,” Qasimi pointed out. “There’s no soap or running water or something like that readily available. We have children, and of course, are worried about hygiene here.”
Many refugees asked about basic resources to obtain housing, access to a lawyer, and oftentimes, a doctor or connections to medical assistance. While many have attempted to obtain assistance for themselves, there were often logistical barriers and difficulties that made the process difficult. One common frustration was the long wait times to access help.
“I’ve called a lot of these services, these NGOs who say they want to help,”
explained a young refugee, who explained they would have to wait long periods of time to even get responses to their questions if they heard anything back.
“They don’t do anything.”
Others have been burned by those looking to take advantage of refugees. To even come to Greece, some mentioned they had to pay thousands of euros to even be able to arrive with the help of smugglers.
One man living at the square with his family, furthermore, spoke of being taken advantage of by a lawyer in Lesvos. While staying in Moria, he paid a lawyer thousands of euros to help him apply for asylum. The lawyer pocketed the money despite doing very little to help, resulting in the man’s application for asylum being rejected. After appealing the decision, the man has now been rejected for asylum a second time and is in theory now supposed to vacate the country. He hopes to find legal assistance to avoid such a fate but is afraid to pay someone to help again.
Another common difficulty cited was the language barrier.
While they were diligent about having any relevant government paperwork with them at all times, many refugees had not been told what official documents were given to them by the Greek government often meant, despite the importance and time-sensitivity of many such documents. Despite the fact that many refugees do not know Greek or English, most of the documents provided to them are not available in other languages.
Such a barrier also exists for those looking for healthcare. “We want to go to the hospital, but if we go, they can’t serve us because they don’t speak our language,” said a young man at the square, who was looking for medical assistance for his father.
“I want to see a doctor, but I am not sure where to go,”
says Hawa, another refugee at Viktoria. She would like to obtain care for both her daughter and herself.
Hawa A. has lived at Viktoria for one month, after living in Moria for nine months. Hawa was recently granted asylum at Moria — — with the granting of asylum, however, Hawa’s financial assistance and access to the shelter were cut off.
Hawa has two children, a twelve-year-old and a two-year-old. She told AthensLive that she walked from Iran to Afghanistan to escape an abusive marriage, eventually coming with her children to Greece.
Upon arriving in Athens, Hawa stayed with a friend who was willing to provide temporary shelter nearby the square but had to leave when the friend became upset and hit Hawa’s daughter badly, causing injury.
Forced to leave the shelter to escape violence, Hawa now calls Viktoria Square home. Hawa, however, is hoping to find something better as soon as possible. As such, Hawa is currently looking for a home for herself and has a Tax ID number to do so.
“I am not too sure how to go about finding a home,” explained Hawa. “I am not too sure where to look, and I am not sure calling for apartments will work because I don’t know how to read or speak Greek or English.”
In the meantime, aspects of everyday existence in Viktoria Square are difficult for Hawa and many others.
“It’s stressful to be here, especially because of the police forces around,” Hawa said, noting the almost-constant presence of police officers at or around the square. She had been present one evening at the square several weeks previously when law enforcement attempted to evict refugees. She explained that they hit people with batons and even used tear gas late in the evening.
Hawa finds such a reality mentally taxing, as do many others who share her situation.
Further complicating refugee lives such as Hawa’s, unfortunately, is the pandemic. Many refugees noted that quarantine has made the processes for important paperwork and the general asylum process as a whole to be much more unclear in terms of wait times and expected procedures. In a couple of cases, some were caught unaware that their papers had already expired!
Despite the lack of even basic guidance provided to refugees, the expectations of what they are supposed to do are great. Mansour Ahmadhi, a resident of Viktoria Square from Afghanistan, is all too familiar with such a reality.
Ahmadhi has lived at Viktoria Square with his wife and two children for seventeen days. He had previously lived at Moria camp in Lesvos for thirteen months, but he was forced to leave with his family after his application for asylum had been rejected twice.
“I was told to take my application to court in Athens, but with no real instructions in terms of how to do that,” said Ahmadhi, explaining what was supposed to happen with his application. “While many refugees I knew well were able to go to the Ritsona camp, we were not allowed in because they said we did not have valid papers.”
Ahmadhi, who explained that he used to work at a NATO office in Afghanistan for twelve years, said that he had worked alongside many Americans. He had hoped proof he worked there would help him in the asylum process, and brought as much paperwork as he could with him when leaving Afghanistan to show the relevant authorities.
Such efforts were unfortunately to no avail, but Ahmadhi has hope that his situation improves soon. At the moment, he is most worried about his wife, who has had health complications resulting from her previous pregnancy.
While many people we spoke with, live in Viktoria square, many others can be frequently found there, and live nearby. They have many of the same struggles, hopes, and dreams for their lives.
Sarwar, who says he is about sixty years old, lives nearby Viktoria square. He had lost his legs in an accident twelve years ago due to a farming accident that had taken place in Afghanistan. There had been an explosion related to equipment at the farm, and several workers had died as a result.
He had hoped to get prosthetic legs in Greece and was referred to a local hospital to address the situation.
“I was told that the new legs would cost about 6 to 8,000 euros,” Sarwar explained. “As much as I would have liked them, I cannot pay for such a thing.” Instead, with fake legs he attaches to his own, Sarwar is able to walk with assistance.
Sarwar explained that his journey to Greece was difficult. He, his wife, and children initially attempted to cross the border to Greece from Turkey together but were stopped by law enforcement. While his wife and daughter were allowed to cross, he and his son were arrested and deported back to Turkey.
Eventually, he and his son were able to come back to Greece, first spending nine months of their new life in Moria on Lesvos. They were ultimately relocated to Athens and now the whole family is back together after years apart.
Ultimately, Sarwar struggles in his new life. He has financial worries, as well as difficulties hearing from his right ear. He is also worried about his kidneys. In the meantime, however, he has a relief that he is once again around his loved ones.
Aziz, who translated Sarwar’s story into English, explained such a separation of family members was a very common occurrence for migrants coming to Europe. In general, if families are arrested by the border or elsewhere, he said that men are more likely to be sent back home or face legal punishment than others.
Getting Ahead, With or Without Greece’s Help
While many are waiting through the Greek government bureaucracy for the purposes of seeking asylum and other necessary resources to get ahead, some have decided waiting around is not worth it, and are attempting to move elsewhere in Europe. Some are willing to break the law to do so.
Arash, whose name is known to AthensLive but has been changed for safety reasons, is from Afghanistan, where he fled to escape the Taliban. He explained that he had been held and tortured in the Taliban headquarters in the Helmand province of the country for about a month. Able to escape and relocate, he now lives nearby Viktoria square with his four children.
Arash, whose wife illegally went to another European country last week, is hoping that she is able to get the family reunited there or elsewhere in Europe with legal assistance. One of his friends was recently able to do the same, he claims, and the family ultimately thinks it is worth the shot.
As a parent, Arash’s express frustration was the educational system in Greece. He had tried to send his children to a public school near Viktoria, but they were turned away. The school would only tell him that there was no room left for new students, but Rahimi suspects racism played a role in the decision.
“Education is important to us,” says Arash. “We sent our children to a great private school in Kabul. My wife, who had worked for a [prominent international human rights organization back in Afghanistan] used to fight illegal child labor that was going on in the country…So of course we want our kids to learn, and we find it frustrating that we cannot seem to make that happen here.”
While some refugees have hard feelings about the every-day issues they face navigating life in Greece, an element of unfriendliness is unshakable for others.
“There are a lot of wonderful people here in Greece,” said Negin, a 16-year-old from Afghanistan, whose family hopes to move to another country in Europe, such as Germany. She has been taking Greek classes at a community organization near Omonia. “But there are a lot of mean people here who don’t like us for who we are.”
Negin’s brother often has seizures, and as a result, the family hopes to resettle somewhere it is easier to access better care. In theory, such is possible under existing resettlement guidelines. “We want to move somewhere where people are kinder.”
An Uncertain Future
Viktoria Square is a place of waiting, and, as settlers’ belongings pile up in the square, one of uncertainty. It is a place where many must wait for their lives to start, but it’s also a place where no one wants to live for long.
In a new era of conservatism in Greece, and in a difficult economic and social period, it is unclear whether the government will act to intervene to help find refugees at Viktoria shelter, work, and dignified existence. Time will tell.