ATHENS – Since last Wednesday, refugees from the war in Syria have been camping outside the Greek parliament in Syntagma Square, Athens. Up to six hundred of them have come here to protest about their living conditions: some have found temporary accommodation in hotels, while others are on the street. They are asking that the Greek government either gives them residence permits or allows them to leave Greece for other destinations in the EU.
On Monday, some of the refugees went on hunger strike, taping up their mouths and piling the food donated by sympathisers, on the pavement in front of them. There are men, women and children here, ranging from babies to the elderly, but the largest group are young people of working age. The refugees mostly arrived in Greece via boat, paying smugglers in Turkey for passage to one of the Aegean islands. They intended to travel through Greece and onwards to northern Europe – Germany and Sweden are popular destinations – but strict controls at Greece’s airports and land borders mean that many are now stuck.
“Greek people have no work, how can a foreign person work here?”
“Syrian people escape war,” explains 31 year-old Husam, a refugee from Homs who is a trained engineer and used to work as a sales assistant. “They need a safe place with medical care and education for children, and permission to stay.” “The refugees don’t believe they will receive this in Greece”, he said, because Greece only issues 6-month temporary documents to asylum seekers. This, combined with the country’s economic difficulties, is a worry. “Greek people have no work, how can a foreign person work here?”
It costs a lot of money to reach Europe: smugglers charge around 4,000 euros per person to cross the Mediterranean from Turkey. The refugees have used their savings, sold their homes and possessions and borrowed money from friends to reach Europe. Now, what remains of their budget is being eaten up by daily life in Greece. Families are spending between €15 and €25 a day per person on rent and food, and must pay extra for medicines and treatment. It costs around another €4,000 per person for safe passage out of Greece.
Hunaf, a young woman in her early 20s, arrived in Athens from her home city of Aleppo 18 months ago. Her husband had already been living in Greece and working as a shoemaker, but 5 months ago he was arrested and placed in an immigration detention centre just outside Athens for not having the correct identity documents. “We rent a small home, with just one room,” says Hunaf. “Since my husband went to jail I haven’t been able to pay the rent. The landlord is angry.” As she speaks, she holds her seven-month old baby, Ivan Ibrahim. “My husband hasn’t seen him since he was three months old,” she says.
“There will be consequences,” says Khaled, a 21 year-old from Damascus. “If people have no money they will steal.” He has been in Greece for just over a month, after landing by boat on the island of Kos. Standing next to him is another young man called Khaled, 25 years old and from Aleppo. “We travelled on the same boat,” he says, throwing his arm around his friend’s shoulders. In Syria, before the war, the younger Khaled was a nurse, while the older one worked in tourism. Beside them is 27 year-old Said, who trained as a translator, but fled Syria to avoid conscription in the Assad regime’s army.
Like many other young refugees at the protests, these men had good jobs before the war and want to find somewhere in Europe that will allow them to continue working. “Some people here are semi-rich,” says the younger Khaled. He means they’re middle-class. That doesn’t make them any more or less deserving but it’s one of the harsh facts of life as a refugee that those with money are able to travel further and faster.
A more humane system could change this, but European asylum policies make it all but impossible for people to ask for protection when they’re still in their home countries. New fences, surveillance systems and increased border patrols at the physical edges of the EU make it harder to cross and drive up the prices charged by people smugglers.
Leen and Joud, two nine-year old friends from Hama, are here at the protest with their families. Leen’s mother Lamis, a sports teacher, explained how she sold her house and all her jewellery to get the money to leave Syria. “We left because there was shelling and bombing all the time and people were being kidnapped,” she said. Safe for the moment, Lamis has other worries on her mind: “School, job, life – these are the priorities,” she tells me.
Refugees have trouble finding shelter and medical care, and are the targets of racist violence.
But Europe is making it difficult to achieve these things. Greece’s asylum system is so dysfunctional that the European Court of Human Rights has ordered other EU member states not to send refugees back there. Refugees have trouble finding shelter and medical care, and are the targets of racist violence. Yet the borders remain closed to those without travel documents. Several refugees had stories of trying to walk through Macedonia and Serbia, to the north of Greece, but getting turned back by soldiers. As they wait and watch their money drain away, they see the prospect of rebuilding their lives get increasingly remote.
Nine year-old Joud’s family have been in Greece for two months. Her favourite subjects at school were art and English, but she hasn’t been able to study since she left her home. “We wish to go to Europe for asylum,” she says, “but now we are here for a very long time, I want to go back to Syria, to go back to school to learn for a better life.”
*An earlier version of this piece stated that 600 refugees are staging a hunger strike. Only 150 out of the 600 currently camped in Syntagma are participating in the strike. The summary has changed to reflect that.