Greece is better than Senegal

“In this area you need to carry a gun,” Alex says wearily, gesturing to the streets outside the restaurant he runs near Karaiskaki Square in central Athens. Dotted about the streets spiralling off the square and right up to Omonia metro, are small clusters of men from all over the world. Various shades of brown, they stand out from the busy commuters, who walk around them and look through them.

Alex claims most are selling drugs and many are junkies. Others: “Their only occupation is to steal.” He grew up in the area and went to school nearby and reckons it has changed because of the influx of immigrants. Alex is not the only one expecting trouble; a day later, standing in place of the clusters of Africans, Pakistanis and Moroccans are groups of police officers. The difference is startling; the migrants were both invisible and yet harshly visible. Their absence is unsettling. A Roma woman stubbornly remains – that’s a guess, I think she spoke Italian and unsurprisingly didn’t understand my phrase book Greek – begging with her two young daughters.

If you put the words ‘Greece’ and ‘trouble’ into google you’ll get a ton of results relating the country’s economic difficulties. The reality of the financial crisis hit home for Greece last year with an austerity budget, spiralling debts, riots and rising unemployment. While immigration may struggle for prominence in this tale of woe, it is still a potentially explosive issue.

Most European countries think there are too many migrants knocking at the door; Greece at least has the stats to back up its complaints. Between 75 -90% of migrants entering the European Union in 2009 came through Greece. According to Frontex, the EU’s border patrol, this is up from 50% the year before. Greece’s citizen protection ministry says from January to September last year it registered more than 95,000 migrants. And since June last year alone nearly 40,000 people have tried to cross the Turkish/Greek land border.

Mariam is one the migrants that made the journey to Greece. She arrived four years ago from Senegal with her husband, who believed they could make a better life here. But life is hard in Greece, she says.

Her friend Cheikh Gadiaga agrees. “There are some people [migrants] here who have never worked. It is very hard here; I think there other countries better than here. But we can’t leave, because we don’t have papers.”

(I met Cheikh and Mariam, two haggard looking Pakistani men looking for cheap phones to call home and a friendly African man with advice on the best phone card to buy, in the area Alex said to carry a gun. Cheikh says he has never seen anyone selling drugs, though people do smoke marijuana.)

Twenty-six year old Cheikh flew to Turkey from Senegal and then crossed the border into Greece, telling patrol police that he was from Somalia. “They ask where are you’re from. You say another country so they will not deport you.” Cheikh, a trendy-looking man wearing jeans, snug t-shirt and sparkly scarf loosely draped round his neck, says he is in Greece to earn money to help his family back home. “Senegal is a poor country. There is no work.”

While Cheikh is upbeat, I find it hard to be after spending time with him. He makes his living selling fake designer bags, which he buys wholesale from “Chinese people”. Some days he’ll make money, others a loss. He hates it. “Anything is better than my work,” he says.

And every day he is stopped by police. He proudly shows me his ID, a shabby pink piece of paper, his 6-month residence permit allowing him to work but giving him no permanent status or visa. Other migrants I spoke to are more disparaging about the red card, as it is officially known. For them it symbolises the notorious Greek immigration system, where people can wait years for official status, instead having their red card reissued every six months.

Cheikh admits he’d rather leave Greece and join friends who are working in countries like Italy and Spain. “I want to leave to go to another country because it is not easy to work here. I have asked for a visa. Every day I try. It is very hard. I will keep trying.”