Life is tough for the quarter of a million undocumented migrants and asylum seekers living in destitution across Athens. They are packed, sometimes 10 or 20 people to a room, into dark, dingy flats. The unlucky ones bed down in the city’s parks and squares.
Their lives won’t get better anytime soon. Greece has a backlog of around 60,000 asylum cases, mainly from Afghanistan, Palestine, Somalia, Iran and Iraq; they could take years to clear.
Some have already waited for up to a decade for a decision. Even if their cases are looked at, it is unlikely they will be allowed to remain. Greece grants refugee status to less than one per cent of applicants, the lowest rate in the European Union where the average is around 36 per cent.
'Sacrifice your life'
In a sign of growing desperation, in December last year, 100 Afghan asylum seekers, some of whom had waited for up to eight years for an asylum decision, set up a protest camp outside Athens University. Twelve of the group, including one young mother, sewed their lips together and went on a hunger strike.
‘The best way to get a response from the Greek government is to really sacrifice your life,’ says 22-year-old Ezmerey Ahmadi, one of the protesters. ‘Most important is getting our papers; we aren’t requesting any economic help.’ The hunger strike ended in February, but the protest continues. Six of the protesters have been granted asylum, six have been refused and the rest remain.
The current economic climate makes life particularly tough for asylum seekers and undocumented migrants in Greece. Financial woes have sparked a rise in support for the political far-right. And as the socialist government implements an unprecedented package of austerity measures, many ordinary Greeks are turning to fascist groups, quick to blame migrants for the country’s problems.
Last October the far-right party Chrysi Avgi, also known as Golden Dawn, won its first seat in Athens city council. Since then it has held several anti-immigrant rallies in areas with large migrant communities. Fascist activists are also alleged to have carried out random revenge attacks on innocent migrants after a Greek man was stabbed to death in central Athens in March.
‘I never come out of the house during the night, because I’m afraid of the fascists,’ says Abolzar Jalily. ‘I came from Afghanistan to be safe.’ Jalily left his home after receiving death threats because he worked as an interpreter for foreign forces. Now he faces a fresh threat from a violent fascist movement operating with near impunity in downtown Athens, where Jalily lives with his family.
‘In one attack the fascists killed some refugees and injured more than 150 people. They beat them very badly and they could not go to the police because they would do nothing for them,’ he says.
Tania, a Bulgarian immigrant who has lived in Greece for 10 years, says she is too afraid to travel downtown after hearing stories about Albanians being randomly attacked. ‘There are some fascist organizations that are trying to blame foreigners for many things that happen here, one is taking their [Greeks’] jobs.’
Conditions for migrants in Greece are likely to deteriorate further. The new austerity measures will mean greater penury for those who are already last in line for state support and living wage jobs.
‘I am a single mum and I have no help from the government,’ explains Tania, who is a maths and physics graduate, but works as a cleaner and nail technician. If you are a foreigner here, you have no social services to help you.’
Let the problem escalate
‘When Greek society is being destroyed, it is easy to understand that there will be people that treat migrants and asylum seekers as scapegoats,’ says Spyros Rizakos, who works for Aitma, an NGO in Athens. ‘This is the result of the lack of policy on these issues. The Greek government doesn’t address the problems of migrants and refugees, they let them escalate and it becomes difficult to control.’
But the difficulties bought on by the country’s economic problems are only a small part of the wider problems faced by migrants in Greece.
The country is notorious for its appalling border reception centres, where immigrants can be held for up to six months in overcrowded and dirty cells. Nearly 90 per cent of undocumented migrants enter Europe through Greece, creating tension on the country’s border with Turkey, where 45 people died trying to cross last year.
Georgios Salamagkas heads up the police directory of Orestiada, a city in Northern Greece close to the Turkish border. His officers have felt the pressure as the number of immigrants entering this tiny area exploded from 3,500 to 36,000 in the last year.
‘They risk drowning in the river to cross the border to reach a better life,’ Salamagkas says. ‘You feel sad about the drowned people but you also feel anger for the traffickers who do not take the measures to keep human life safe. If they put them in life jackets they would be safe, it costs just €3.’
While Greece’s immediate focus is on clearing its debts, what is clear is that money alone will not solve the country’s immigration problems.