Writing by Patrick Keddie
Greece: The Gateway to Europe
Greece is now the primary gateway to the European Union (EU) for desperate refugees and economic migrants; by the end of 2010 around 90% of the people detected irregularly in the EU had entered via Greece. Levels of irregular migration have continued to rise to an estimated 130,000 people each year and the Greek government claims that there are over a million irregular migrants in a country with an official population of 11 million.
Many migrants have taken a perilous journey to Greece in order to escape from violence, war, famine or political repression but the increase in immigration has coincided with the devastating economic crisis and government support for migrants has all but collapsed. Migrants are suffering greatly in Greece’s crisis, yet their voices are rarely heard.
I travelled to Greece in March 2012 with the photographer David Shaw. We found three key issues afflicting migrants; a rapidly deteriorating health and social crisis; a growing epidemic of racist attacks on migrants by far-right groups and the police, and, as examined below, an asylum system that is severely limited and inhumane.
Greece’s Inhumane Asylum System
It is 5.30am on a Saturday morning in a scruffy, rubbish-strewn backstreet in Athens. Around 200 migrants, overwhelmingly men from Africa and Asia, are queuing against a chain-link fence to lodge an asylum application and to gain a pink temporary residence card at the Petrou Ralli Alien’s Directorate where new asylum claims are processed just once a week on Saturday mornings.
The Greek authorities usually process no more than 20 people, sending the rest away to come back the following week. There is no access to food, water, or toilets, and there is no shelter – they are exposed to sun, rain and cold, often for days at a time as many queue from Tuesday or Wednesday each week. Others come late and simply try to push in.
Until now, the people queuing here have been in Greece without papers; most living in destitution; unable to claim any benefits, work legally, or access public services. They are liable to be arrested by the police at any time and detained or deported.
Douglas Arouse, 39, is from Liberia and has been here since Wednesday night. He’s at the very front of the queue and is huddled in a blanket and sat on broken down cardboard – he looks exhausted. “Fights break out here all the time” he says, “Last week they picked 17 or 18 then they sent us home and we have to start again, it is no good. We don’t eat – if you leave the place to get food, another person will take it.” He has been has been coming to apply for asylum in vain since February.
Blessing Jumali is a 21 year-old Ghanaian woman and has been in Greece for over a month. Despite arriving at the centre on Tuesday, she’s at the very back of the queue. “There are too many fights, they [other asylum seekers] push in the line, and they break people’s heads to get to the front because if the police come now they will start from the beginning and take those people” she says –“I was number 10 in the queue four days ago but I have been shifted back and back – I can’t push with them because I’m a woman. Hopefully, wherever I am, they [the authorities] will just come and choose me here.”
Others have been coming here for even longer; “Every week I come here on Tuesday. I have been in Greece for six months and I spend most of my time just waiting here and nothing happens” says Mike Kakemdo, 30, Uganda.
At around 6am the police try to take 20 people at the front but the tired queue dissolves into chaos as pushing and fighting breaks out. Most people run the few hundred metres to the police station and crowd against the fence, several crying out in pain. A young man was injured in the crush and taken to hospital.
Another man brandishes a stanley knife and slashes at his own chest, ripping his shirt open to display the wound and threatening others with the weapon. At first the police standby but after a few minutes they intervene to confiscate the knife but then disappear. One man in the crowd shouts; “They look at us as animals. There’s fighting with a knife but the police just leave so we can kill ourselves.”
Around 6.30am the authorities announce that they will not be taking any asylum claims at all this week; the migrants are told to come back next Saturday.
A few people lucky enough to be able to afford a lawyer can make an asylum claim without coming to the Directorate but most will be forced to come to join the weekly struggle under inhumane conditions to make a claim.
Amanda Papaioannou from The Group of Lawyers for the Rights of Migrants and Refugees says that “the authorities told us that these are the orders from above and they don’t have the capacity to deal with any more.” Papaioannou also claims that that people come to the Directorate from all over the country and that there are two other centres in Greece; one which usually processes three people a week in Crete and another admitting a small number of people in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city in the north of the country.
In addition to the difficulty in accessing the asylum procedure, once a claim is made there is only a small chance it will be treated favourably. A report for Eurostat showed that Greece processed 8,670 claims in 2011, with a form of protection granted in just 180 (2.1%) of these cases.
If asylum seekers and migrants are found without papers they are often detained by the Greek police for long periods of time. In a report published in October 2011, Amnesty International expressed “serious concern over the routine detention of asylum seekers and irregular migrants, and the very poor detention conditions in many immigration detention facilities which can amount to inhuman or degrading treatment, not least when detention is prolonged.”
Ima-Uddin-Addullah, 29, and Ibrahim Tarik, 24, both from Darfur, were waiting in the scrum of people trying to claim asylum at the centre. Both had spent time in Greek prisons for having no papers. Uddin-Addullah claims that “We slept on the floor [in prison] with no good food, not enough water, maybe one meal a day. Sometimes the police hit us.” Tarik spent seven weeks in a Greek jail that he described as severely overcrowded and filthy. He claims that he left Sudan after being imprisoned and tortured by the security services. “We were surprised by Greece” he says, “Greece is not Europe; there is no law in this country.”
Despite our repeated attempts, neither the Alien’s Directorate nor the Greek Ministry of Information were willing to comment on the conditions at the centre, on Greek asylum procedure, or on detention conditions.
Vassilis Papastergiou, also from the Group of Lawyers for the Rights of Migrants and Refugees, claims that the lack of access to asylum and inhumane treatment of asylum seekers is not new. “It has been happening long before the economic crisis, for at least six years” he explains, “Five years ago the queue was much bigger, there used to be 1000 people and they would take 80. There were lots of fights between the migrants and at least two were found dead here. The people here understand it is impossible. They either stay in a status where they have no papers or they try to leave Greece.”
[All photography by David Shaw; for full photo story on migrants in Greece see here]