Nobody leaves home if things are good

Mohammed Sultan arrives in the Greek border town of Soufli early one cold January morning. His eyes are sad and downcast, his feet and trousers covered in mud and he can barely walk. Dragging his leg heavily he asks, “If I go to the police station, will they deport me?”

The 38-year-old left his wife and children in Palestine and paid nearly $2,000 to get to Europe. He and his friend Ahmed crossed the River Evros the day before in an inflatable boat with eight other people. Then they walked all night through forests and fields till they came to Soufli.

It is extraordinary meeting people at this stage of their journey. Most are exhausted and relieved to be on European soil. As I saw reporting in Athens, it’s not long before this relief turns to despair.

Most are oblivious as to what lies ahead. I met a hopeful and sweet Iranian woman named Yasmin who made the hellish journey from Iran with her Afghan husband and their two young children. They walked for days through the mountains in Iran, always fearing capture and deportation. From Turkey they crossed the River Evros to Greece, where they were arrested and spent a month in a reception centre. They paid a Greek man €4,000 to “organise” their trip from Iran. Yasmin hopes to find him in Greece because they don’t know how to get to Switzerland, which is where he promised to send them.

Yasmin says she has no problems with her country and doesn’t want to claim asylum. But as she is married to an Afghan, life is difficult in Iran. She hopes her husband, a teacher, will be able to study and teach in Switzerland. But her family have been given a deportation order to leave Greece within one month. And of course they have spent all their money on the smuggler, so there is very little chance they will make it to Switzerland legally.

The information available to people trying to seek a new life or asylum in Europe is extremely poor. These people are usually the most vulnerable and have no papers in their own countries, which is why they travel illegally and don’t simply a plane ticket. The only source of information is a vast and mystifying grapevine, which peddles myths and assumptions without which many might not have even left home. A popular myth is that everyone who is not from Somalia or Afghanistan will be deported, and so many lie about where they are from.

Though not everyone wants to try and navigate the system. Ersham, a 20-year-old from Layounne in Morocco, who arrived in Greece one morning with muddy feet and a big grin, is happy to avoid the police. Instead he and his two friends want to get the next train to Athens. “We want to work, we want freedom, we want a nice life,” he says.

Esham 20 years old is from Morocco.Picture Maro Kouri

Those that are arrested are taken to either the purpose-built reception centre in Filakio, which holds 350 people, or to one of the smaller border town police cells. Journalists and members of the public aren’t allowed to enter the centres, but I interviewed Médecins Sans Frontières about what they’ve seen inside and it’s pretty hideous. More on that in a later post.

I hung about outside Filakio centre for a few days, asking questions and getting no answers, but soon the guards began to lighten up and became remarkably chatty. They find their job incredibly difficult. They are in a precarious position; the inmates are not criminals but they imprisoned like criminals, which means it is easy for the officers to slip into that mentality. (To be fair though all the migrants I meet leaving Filakio, insist the guards were good to them).

Filakio detention in Evros, north GreecePicture Maro Kouri

“You can only believe 15% of what they say,” the guard says. “Everybody has a death in the family. I can’t believe all the stories. I don’t know.”

He adds: “It makes me sad. The first day is always sad, but the second day is better because they settle in. They have nobody to help them. If sometimes a mother needs milk for her baby, we give them money.

“I don’t know why these people come to Greece. Where will they live and sleep? How can they go to Athens? There is always someone in Athens telling them to come. There is no work for all these people.”

Legally the longest a person can be kept in a reception centre is six months. On release they are given a piece of paper in either Greek or English which says they must leave the country within one month. The ones who have no money are released on to the streets; they usually end up walking miles to the nearest big town. People with money can buy a bus ticket for €65 to Athens.

I watch one afternoon as around 50 migrants from the Congo, Afghanistan, Senegal and Iraq desperately try to squeeze themselves on a coach bound for Athens. Out of the confines of the reception centre the hope that bought them to Europe returns. Everyone is happy and they are expecting better luck in Athens. Hadim, 30, from Senegal, tells me about the horror of crossing Evros on an inflatable boat with 20 other people. “Man, if you laugh, the boat will fall. Don’t laugh, don’t laugh,” he says. Hadim paid a smuggler in Istanbul $100 to help him get to Greece.

Uhmert, an 18-year-old Afghan, is less jubilant; he found the journey difficult and at times regretted leaving his family. Why did he leave? “You know why our country is not good for living.” He paid $6,000 for the entire trip. His young face looks suddenly tired when another Afghan says he paid $2,000. It seems the smugglers take what they can get. Hadim simply said he had no money, so the smuggler happily took his $100, while Uhmert paid $1,500 at this stage of his journey.

Uhmert Afghan asylum seeker in greecePicture Maro Kouri

This is not the end of Uhmert’s difficulties. He and the others will join the tens of thousands of migrants already in Athens without papers. He might escape to another European country, but a wave of anti-immigrant feeling across the continent means it is unlikely he will be able to settle unless he is one of the few given refugee status.

Yet they still come, why? Hope. Every migrant I meet tells me about his uncle or brother who arrived in London/Athens/Berlin 10 years ago and now who runs a shop or has a good job. But it is more than that, as one MSF doctor I spoke to said, “Of course, nobody leaves home if things are good.”

Europe’s financial difficulties over the last few years mean cheap foreign labour has lost its appeal. And so most European countries want to restrict the number of non-EU migrants they accept. But nobody told the rest of the world that. Hadim, unaware of the British government’s immigration cap, says: “I know London, I see it in the computer. London is very nice place. The people have jobs. In London – you don’t make problems for the people and they don’t make problems for you. I like this.”

“Greece is becoming a big concentration camp”

This is an extreme description of the effects of Greece’s dysfunctional asylum system, but one that Athens councillor Petros Konstantinou insists on. “The whole of Greece is becoming a concentration camp with no political rights, with no workers’ rights and [only] the absolute rule of the authorities,” he says. While Petros’ anger is about more than an unjust asylum system, that higher bodies are concerned means this is about more than politics. Earlier this month the European Court of Human Rights’ ordered Belgium to pay a fine for returning an Afghan asylum seeker to Greece. This follows moves by several European countries including the UK, Sweden and Ireland to stop returning asylum seekers to the country. Charities and NGOs talk of a humanitarian crisis. Why?

More than 250,000 “illegal” asylum seekers and migrants live in and around Athens, according to the Red Cross. Many sleep in the city’s grand squares and picturesque parks, others seek shelter in abandoned buildings. The lucky ones pay to rent rooms. Conditions vary: I learnt of one example where 70 people shared around 80sqm. They paid daily (€3), weekly (€10) or monthly (€70). Others talk of 20-30 people sharing one or two rooms.

I visit one dingy apartment on the third floor of a grey block of flats on a faded street near Victoria Square, a tense ghetto shared by immigrants and poor Greeks. The unfurnished flat is shared by 24 people including women and children, all from Iran and Afghanistan. There are no beds or even mattresses; they all sleep on a tired looking rug covering a wooden floor. Once a week they can use the shower and there is a kitchen, though they have very little to eat.

As I take off my shoes and am ushered into one of the sparse rooms, six or seven Afghani men sit around eager to tell their stories. But I’m keen to hear from the women who live this life, so I ask the men if I can speak to their wives. Two young women with tired eyes come into the room, adjusting their head scarves looking shy.

I film the interview and am surprised when very quickly they relax and begin telling their stories enthusiastically in Farsi. Later my translator Ezmerey tells me that they would have never let me film them or have spoken to me when they first arrived in Greece, but after months in a hopeless situation, they are desperate.

Like many Afghans in Greece, they have tried countries closer to home. Both women and their families lived in Iran for years before trying their luck in Europe. Having interviewed several Afghan refugees on separate occasions, a familiar pattern of discrimination and poverty has emerged about life for Afghanis in Iran. So Esmarael, 25, and her husband sold everything they owned and left the country with their three children. The toughest part of her journey was the 7-hour walk through mountains in Iran and to the border with Turkey. It took 15 days to get to Greece.

Having been in Greece for five months Esmarael feels trapped and is desperate to leave. She and her husband can’t find work, they have no social assistance from the Greek government and their applications have joined a queue of thousands, some who have been waiting a decade for a decision. Until a decision has been made on their application, they cannot leave the country legally because they have no papers. On top of that having paid their life savings to people smugglers and with little chance of finding work in Greece, they have no money. They tell people back in Afghanistan that it is better to die there than come here.

Farida, the older of the two women, says her family never intended to stay in Greece. The smugglers put them on a boat from Turkey, which was supposed to take them to Italy. After 16 hours floating aimlessly in the Aegean sea, the boat began to sink and they were rescued by Greek coasts guards and taken to one of the Aegean Islands. Four people drowned. Farida’s voice cracks, and she begins to cry and words tumble from her mouth. She is the picture of utter despair.

“We don’t have any more hope for our lives. The best hope is for our children, even though they don’t have any hope because they are so depressed living here.” She gestures towards her 9-year-old son, a silent sweet-faced boy with dark circles under wide eyes. He is ill, but every day he must go out and sell cigarette lighters. “That is the best he can do now.”

Farida from Afghanistan living in a tiny flat in Athens

Afghan boy living rough in Athens

Farida’s story is one of nearly 70,000 who are waiting for the Greek government to make a decision on their case. While economic migrants form part of irregular immigration to Greece, the majority of immigrants come from Afghanistan, Palestine, Somalia, Iran and Iraq. Yet the number of asylum seekers recognised as refugees in Greece is less than 1%, the lowest in the European Union.

Lawyers say the backlog is due to the 2009 immigration law which abolished a person’s right to appeal an asylum decision. On arrival in Greece, most immigrants are arrested, their finger prints are taken, they put in detention centres and eventually released with a temporary residence permit giving them one month to leave the country. Unless they know someone in Greece already, it is nearly impossible for them to access a lawyer to help appeal the permit and make an application for asylum. (Also remember, the whole process is run by the police, including the screening of who is and who isn’t a genuine asylum seeker.)

If they do find out how to make an application, the place to do it is a centre on an industrial estate a 20-minute bus ride from the centre of Athens. The dirt road with no pavements to step on to avoid passing lorries leads to two offices, one where people apply for a work permit and the other for asylum applications. The office for work permits opens once a week on a Friday night at around 11pm. Out of a queue of hundreds, guards choose around 20 applications to process, in order of ethnicity. Europeans first, then Russians, then Albanians, and so on.

Most asylum seekers try to leave Greece for other European countries. But under the European Union’s Dublin II regulation asylum seekers are only allowed to make one asylum claim and that must be in the first EU country they enter. Up till a year or so ago, this meant border countries Spain, Italy and Greece took in the most applications. But since Spain and Italy made agreements with north African countries to take people back, it is almost impossible for migrants to enter Europe across the Mediterranean. Instead most go through Turkey and enter Europe through Greece.

So Greece is receiving around 80,000 irregular migrants a year, processing very few of them and preventing them from leaving. But they do try to leave. Drinking tea in an Egyptian bar, I watch two dark skinned men walk in with suitcases and dispirited looks on their faces. Ezmerey looks sympathetic. “You see a lot of that,” he says. People try to leave the country with whatever papers they have or with fake ID, most fail and are sent back. They try every day, he says.

What’s behind this nonsensical system? Greece is also a loser under this set up, with increased overcrowding and poverty in its inner cities. Spyros Rizakos, a Greek asylum lawyer, thinks that the Greek government adopted a “stupid mentality” where they didn’t want to be seen as a country sympathetic to refugees. At the same time they couldn’t be seen to be breaking international and European covenants protecting the rights of refugees. They only processed cases from countries they could easily reject. Others, “they preferred to have the cases pending and not take decisions. Maybe they hoped the situation in Afghanistan would improve,” Spyros shrugs bemused.

But there is hope. The new socialist government has drawn up a new asylum law, taking control of asylum and immigration away from the police and setting up a new asylum office. There will be a committee specially trained to screen asylum applicants and the UNHCR and other NGOs will be permitted to sit in on asylum interviews. The law abolishing right of appeal on asylum claims has been scrapped. And there will be a 3-6 month time limit on first instance decisions.

Having worked in asylum and refugee issues for a decade and struggled to keep his organisation afloat, Spyros is understandably cynical. As we talk in his small, bare office in Athens, a colleague takes a call from the airport. They try to be on hand to help any Dublin returnees. Last week they took on a torture victim returned from Hungary.

He thinks the new law is ambitious and expensive, which means it could take years to put in place. “Under the present situation and from our experience we doubt if these plans will be realised. We are very worried and sceptical.
“We need practical solutions that can be immediately applied and then we can see other more ambitious plans. But what we have is access blocked, the system not working, reception conditions very bad. [The government] should find ways to address this situation immediately, to address this humanitarian crisis.”

When I ask if there is any hope to be had in the EU’s implementation this year of part II of its Common European Asylum System, he is even more disparaging. If the EU wanted to force Greece to change things, they could, but they are more interested in keeping people out. He points out that the EU very quickly managed to force this government to implement a tough, unpopular austerity budget at a time of high unemployment, if they can do that, “How come they cannot do the same for the asylum system?”

Afghan boy living rough in Athens

“We won’t eat till they look at our claim”

Here are some pics that tell the story as eloquently as reams of text… the ones of the police kettle are by the wonderful Dimitris A and the rest are mine. I’ve also done a bit of filming, but it needs a lot of editing so might not be up for a while.

The title of this post is a quote from Ezmerey, one of the Afghan campaigners speaking on behalf of his friends on hunger strike. One of the big problems with seeking asylum in Greece, is that the actual process is incredibly difficult. These men aren’t appealing a decision because no decision on their claims has been made. The police manage immigration here and only look at claims once a week (it’s usually Friday) at around 11 at night. Hundreds queue up to have their applications looked at and just 20 are chosen. The backlog is around 70,000 and will take years to clear, one lawyer told me. If you have a genuine claim – applicants from Afghanistan or Somalia for example – it is less likely your case will be looked at. More on this in another post.

afghan boy looks in fear at the riot police

riot police surround afghan men on way to greek ministry of citizen protection

police look on as Afghan men defiant in Greece

University of Propylaea

Afgan man with sewn lips

This man has been on hunger strike since 29 December with five others. After failing to get a response from the ministry of citizen protection on Tuesday, two more Afghans have joined them.

The 100 Afghans involved in the Propylaea protests includes women and children. They take turns to camp outside in these tents outside the university.
Afghani children join the protesthome on streets of Athens

Afghan campaigners outside university in Athens
The empty chairs represent the two hunger strikers rushed to hospital last wknd. They've since been released and are continuing with the strike.

Afghan hunger strikers rushed to hospital

Hundreds of Greeks have signed the petition in support of the Afghan asylum seekers campaign. Many stop to ask questions, but not everyone has been positive. The camp has been attacked several times by far-right anti-immigrant groups. On Saturday night, police struggled to control clashes between these groups and anti-fascist protestors in the district of Agios Panteleimonas, a large immigrant area. Some very good pictures of that here –

Afghan camp on main shopping district in Athens

Greek woman stops to talk to Afghan asylum seeker

“We are here and we are human”

18 January 2011- “What is happening? What is going on?” asks a young woman looking shocked and slightly fearful. “It is a quiet area, it’s unusual this is happening here. In the centre [of Athens] yes, but not here”, she says, gesturing at the immaculate tree-lined streets leading up to the Greek ministry for citizen protection.

What had unsettled the woman was that about metre from where she was waiting for a bus, at least 20 armed police officers had formed two semi-circles around 15 Afghani men, women and children preventing them from leaving a small area of pavement. Ten of them were blue-uniformed ordinary officers with flat caps, riot shields, sneers and cigarettes – they formed the inner circle around the Afghans, stopping them from leaving the tight space (in England, they call this kettling, a controversial method used by the police to control large protests).

The outer ring was made of 10 riot officers in green khaki and wearing heavy black boots and protective knee pads. They wore helmets with shields and carried guns and canisters of tear gas. Having got caught in the kettle myself, I was quickly let out when I told them I was journalist. When I started taking pictures, a couple of officers started yelling for me to stop. Why? I asked. “Because the government says,” he said. Expecting trouble? I ask the police officer in charge. “We thought there would more of them,” he shrugs apologetically. “Since we’re here, we might as well stay.” He looks nervous as a Greek TV crew turns up.

shot of police gun and afghan boy in athens Greece

The Afghans are asylum seekers caught up in Greece’s notoriously slow asylum system (what system? One Greek journalist tells me, exasperated. That’s the problem, we don’t have one). They were on their way to a meeting with the minister to present their demands: that their applications for asylum are looked at. The 15 represent a group of about 100 men, women and children, some who have waited years to have their applications looked at. The government must make it hard to get asylum in Greece, if it is easy everyone will come here, one sympathetic Greek activist tells me.

But despite the horror stories, they are still coming. Between 75-90% of asylum seekers and migrants that enter Europe travel through Greece and most get stuck unable to leave except illegally. Just last weekend 22 – that’s the official number but sources here say it is closer to 60 – Afghans went missing after their boat (carrying more than 200 people) hit difficult conditions sailing from Corfu to Italy. One Afghan man I spoke to in Victory Square, an area heavily populated with migrants, said he was depressed about the news. Not just because he had a friend on board, but because he had been hoping to leave Greece, where he’d been staying for 3 months with his wife and child.

close up of Aghan hunger striker with sewn lips
Thanks to photo journalist Dimitri Aspiotis for letting me use his pics

The 100-odd Afghans are hoping to avoid being smuggled out of Greece or deported back to their war-torn country and be granted asylum legally. Since November they have set up a small protest camp outside Athens University in Leoforos Panepistimiou, a busy street forming part of a popular shopping district in Athens. Since 29 December six of them have sewn their lips together and are on hunger strike. They are desperate.

A representative from the ministry comes out and says five people can go in. Three Afghans, Petros Konstantinou (an Athens politician) and a representative from a doctors union go inside. The Afghans inside the “kettle” look tired, but hopeful. Reza is there with his wife and children including a 6-month-old baby daughter. “We want to show that we are human and we are here in Greece,” he says wearily. “We didn’t know this would happen.” But Sam, a confident 25-year-old Afghan in a Nike hoody with a sticker saying ‘asylum is my right’, says, “We are not afraid [of the riot police] because we were in a bad situation in Afghanistan.” I suppose having someone from the Taliban running your village would be scarier than Greek police officers calling you “wankers” (translation from Greek) and sneering at you.

After three hours, the five return with nothing. They didn’t get the meeting with the minister, but they met two senior officials who basically told them to wait until the end of month when the new asylum law (more on that later) becomes effective.

The hunger strikers and their supporters looked crestfallen. They have pledged to continue their protest until their applications are looked at. Three of their number had already been in and out of hospital. “They want to put the life of the strikers at risk,” Petros said. But life in Greece without papers, without work and without hope is worse and as I write this one of the Afghans calls to say two more people have sewn their mouths and have joined the hunger strike.

Greek riot police kettle protestors

Petros too, a left-wing councillor who won 90% of the immigrant vote last year, is hopeful. “I think that the struggle of the refugees will be victorious.”