On the dock, on hold
Six hundred tents lie under the sun, on the concrete. This is what the Piraeus port in Athens looked like back in June. The first migrants who arrived here were the luckiest and had found a spot in the shade, under the flyover or inside the “stone house”, an abandoned warehouse. Others looked for relief from the sun and heat in the shadow of the shipping containers or in the parking lots. In front of them the ferries leaving for the Greek islands or Italy. No other place better represents the current plight of the 53,000 migrants stuck in Greece than Piraeus.
For more than two months, 1,200 people have been living here: most of them Afghani and Syrian, but there were also people from Pakistan and Iraq. By the beginning of August, however, all of them had been moved to formal camps, run by the UNHCR and the local Greek authorities.
March 20th is now a date that marks the distinction between ‘before’ and ‘after’. Before, Piraeus, and Greece in general, was a crossing point: people arrived here from the islands, stayed for few days and then left towards the borders, trying to make their way to Germany through the Balkan route. After, the borders closed: Hungary, Bulgaria, Serbia, FYR Macedonia shut their passages for migrants. In May, Idomeni camp, one of the biggest in Greece, a few kilometers from the border, was evicted.
Nobody leaves, nobody enters. Since April 6,925 migrants arrived via sea, 1,554 of them in June only. Nothing compared to the 62,763 arrivals during during the same time last year. This is the main consequence of the EU-Turkey deal: following the promise to relocate Syrians in the EU, Turkey committed to close Mediterranean cross to migrants. People who arrived after March 20 are stuck on Greek islands, while people who were on the border came back to Athens. The so-called emergency arrival is over.
Since March 20, nobody is leaving from Greece. Almost nobody: smugglers, known in Arabic as ‘muharribin’ – literally, the people that let you out – are still an option. But they are an expensive alternative: the price for a fake passport and a plane ticket to Italy can cost up to 3,000 Euro. And that is a price that most of the migrants stuck here cannot afford.
a camp inside the airport
In the outskirts of Athens, many reception centers have been opened in the past months. Skaramangas, one hour from the city, currently hosts 1,600 Syrians and Iraqis hosted in 218 trailers. Schisto camp is mainly for Afghan nationals: 1,800 people in 157 tents. Other camps are Elaionas, Lavrio and Malakasa.
In Eastern Athens, 4,450 people are currently host inside the capital’s former airport and in the baseball and hockey olympic stadium built in 2004. 90% of them are from Afghanistan.
Excluded from EU relocation agreement and with few chances to get asylum in Greece, Afghan asylum seekers’ destiny is mostly uncertain.
In Elleniko we meet Haibar: he arrived in Greece few months ago with his wife and their 3-years-old son, currently recovering from chickenpox. A cruel irony emerge in seeing them living in a tent in the terminal where passengers used to leave from.
The camp inside the airport was settled in February, together with the camp on the former baseball pitch. The camp inside the hockey stadium is in place since September 2015, when it used to host migrants in transit towards the Balkan route.
Haibar’s wife – who prefers not to mention her name – used to work for the Afghan Parliament, while Haibar worked as a consultant for a US company in Kabul. He decided to leave when his colleague from the Netherlands was killed in a Taliban attacks in a hotel.
While we are talking, Haibar receives a text from two friend of him who have just arrived in Italy: they smuggled into one of the truck leaving from Patras port – one of the deadliest route between Greece and Italy.
Haibar, with a wife and a son, can not take the risk: the only thing left for them is waiting.
The main difference between Pireus informal settlement and Elleniko formal camp is that here UNHCR and the Greek Asylum Service started the pre-registration procedure in June - basically a census of migrants who will have access to the formal asylum request registration only as a second step.
Migrants and economic crisis
A challenging coincidence for the Asylum Service
Up until May, the only way to registered as asylum seekers in Greece was through Skype: migrants were supposed to call during the fixed time slot during the week, according to their nationality and spoken language. This resulted in months of unsuccessful attempts for 53 thousands people trying to connect with the same number.
Since the 8th of June a new procedure is in place: named pre-registration, it is conducted by UNHCR (United Nation’s Refugee Agency), EASO (European Asylum Support Office) and the Greek Asylum Service inside the formal camps.
Only once the pre-registration will be over, migrants will access the actual registration of their asylum or relocation request. Until then migrants will be stuck in a legal limbo, with no formal rights. With no valid formal documents assessing their right to stay in Greece, they are excluded from the labour market and from education system. Asylum Service assured, at least, that pre-registered migrants will be no longer at risk of deportation or detention.
“We are currently understaffed and under-funded”
Edward Hall works for the Greek Asylum Service. Sat in his office in Katehaki in Athens, he points out how the management of migrants influx in Greece is critic also due to the economic crisis affecting the country since 2009.
“Ideally we would need three time the employers to manage all the requests in a reasonable amount of time”
Instead, one out of three of current Asylum Service’s employees was hired this year and under a temporary contract.
Katehaki office is the actual place where migrants undergo the registration procedure, followed a couple of months later by an interview with the commission in charge of assessing the asylum seeker’s right to asylum in the country.
Most of asylum seekers’ hopes still lay on relocation or family reunification.
“This is a secondary migration flows: first came men and now families followed. This means that almost anybody as at least a brother, a husband or the father already settled as an asylum seeker in a EU country”
Yista Massouridoy is a Greek lawyer and member of the Association for the Rights of Migrants and Refugees. “They, the Asylum service officers, said that priority will be given to Dublin cases, but I really want to see how they will put this into practice: the system is collapsed and people are likely to wait months, eventually a year, before accessing reunification”.
Mainly due to specific bureaucratic issues related to family reunification, most asylum seekers opt for relocation, even though figures are not encouraging. Only 2,218 asylum seekers from Greece have been relocated, out of 66,400 expected.
An option for people living in the streets
“Passport! Passport!”: the only thing I can find in my pocket is a bus ticket. I show it to the five Syrian kids aged between 7 and 4 years-old and they let me access the second floor of the City Plaza hotel, where I can visit some of the rooms where migrants live since April.
City Plaza Hotel is a former renewed Athens hotel, five minutes walking from Victoria Square, not far from the worldwide famous archeological museum. City Plaza was squatted last April by a group of Greek activists, after 6 years in abandon.
Economic crisis and a controversy between the owner and the manager of the hotel led to shut down. According to activists, former employers of the hotel support the squat: once, in ten years or so, the controversy will be over, hotel furniture will be sold in order to pay back their credits. Refugees living in the hotel are a warranty that the hotel will be kept in good condition.
Plaza is a place that today 400 refugees from Syria, Afghanistan Iran and Pakistan call home. An estimated quota of 3,000 refugees live in a squatted place in Athens.
Few minutes walking from City Plaza, 300 people, previously living in the streets or in one of the informal camp along the border, found a shelter in a former school. Similarly to Plaza, the place is run by local activists and migrants themselves.
The school was squatted two weeks before our visit in late June. Here we met Ehmad. He does not live here but as he can speak English, he helps as a translator. Ehmad used to live in an informal camp not far from Thessaloniki. He tried accessing the registration process via Skype for months. It was by chance that he found the local office where it was possible to formally apply for asylum.
He applied for relocation and in few weeks he will be one of the lucky migrants leaving for Belgium.
Kareem, also from Syria, is one of the squat coordinators. He arrived in Greece on the 18th of March and has no intention to apply for relocation, as the system, he says, reminds him a lottery.
“ Many people here want to go to Germany, they hope to get an house and money. But I do not want to be a refugee or a guest. I just want to find a country where I can be a human being and where I can contribute with my work and my skills. First we were forced to flee and now they would also let someone else making a decision about where I should be relocated. I do not want money, I want to contribute in finding a solution.”
Lesvos and the islands
A schizophrenic system
If Kareem arrived in Greece a few days later, he would be still stuck on a island and never made it to Athens. Asylum procedures in Greek are separated: one system applies for the main land and a different one for the islands. The EU-Turkey deal allows Greece to return to Turkey “all new irregular migrants” arriving after March 20.
As a consequence EASO’s and Asylum service’s officers on the islands assess in the first place the admissibility of asylum requests. In other words, if Turkey is considered a safe third-country the migrant might be readmitted in Turkey.
According to the Greek lawyer Yista Massouridoy, in the admissibility decision issued by Asylum service’s officers on the islands, “the EU – Turkey deal is mentioned explicitly. But according to the law this is a paradox: it is a political agreement not ratified by the Greek Parliament and not implemented in the Greek law”.
Last June the Greek Parliament approved a new law partially reforming Greek asylum procedure. According to Edward Hall “the new law will grant EASO’s officers a more active role in assessing migrants right to access asylum in Greece”. The same law also reformed appeal commission, deciding on asylum seekers plea against negative decision.
According to Mr Hall, the main issue is that “out of 50-60 asylum seekers appeals against readmission in Turkey, in 90% of the cases the appeal commission went against first instance decision”, assessing, in other words, migrants right to apply for asylum in Greece, due to the fact that Turkey could not be considered a safe third-country. It is too soon yet to understand how the newly formed appeal commission will stand to this regard.
“We fear a violation in terms of accessing the right to asylum”, claim Massouridoy: “Migrants have 60 days to appeal against non-admissibility, but this request is not suspensive, meaning that meanwhile the appeal decision is processed asylum seekers can still be deported”.
Pakistan citizens are mostly at risks: Turkey and Pakistan have in fact signed a readmission agreement, meaning that they run the risk to be deported back to their home country with no chance to have their story heard by a proper asylum commission.
In June an Italian lawyers and activists delegation visited the country in order to assess the humanitarian and legal situation of the migrants stuck in Greece. Salvatore Fachile, lawyer and member of ASGI (Italian Association for Juridical Studies on Migration) explains that they are considering the chance to report some cases to the European Court for Human Rights. “We witnessed scarce, if none, access to legal protection and to family reunification, in violation of the European Convention for Human Rights and of Dublin regulation”. Eventually, also the issue of limitation to the freedom of movement might be raised, as access to main land is prevented for migrants arrived after March 20.
So far, the great majority of readmissions to Turkey have been on a voluntary basis. Recently a group of 80 Algerian citizens chose to return to Turkey rather than being stuck on Lesvos with no chance to work. In June, though, two Syrians citizen were still held in custody at the police station in Mytilene, awaiting for appeal decision against readmission to Turkey.
Lesvos currently hosts 3,267 migrants, living in two formal camps, Moria and Kara Tepe, and the informal camp of Pikpa. Back in March, after the deal with Turkey, two-thousands people were transferred to Athens, in order to free some spots for the new arrivals who can not leave the island.
Migrants arrived after March 20 are detained for identification and admissibility assessment in Moria center up to 25 days.
Following the EU – Turkey deal the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Border has decided to suspend its activities in Moria “hotspot” until further notice. The press release reads: “We made the extremely difficult decision to end our activities in Moria because continuing to work inside would make us complicit in a system we consider to be both unfair and inhumane (…) We will not allow our assistance to be instrumentalized for a mass expulsion operation, and we refuse to be part of a system that has no regard for the humanitarian or protection needs of asylum seekers and migrants”.
Part of Moria is in fact a detention center, while part of the migrants are allowed to come and go from the entrance. In front of Moria a couple of stands sell sandwiches and drinks. It is here than in the evening asylum seekers might spend some time. Somehow life seems to go on despite detention: while we visit the place, a group of people is dancing to celebrate the engagement of two young Syrians.