Syrians fleeing civil war face increased dangers as they try to enter Europe, Amnesty International has warned.
Refugees are taking ever-greater risks to reach Europe by sea after Greece, a key entry point for irregular migrants, tightened its land border with Turkey over the last year.
The journey is perilous. Since August last year, 100 people – mostly Syrians and Afghans, among them children and pregnant women – have drowned trying to reach the Greek islands of Lesvos, Samos and Chios.
Even safe arrival in Greece does not signal safety. If migrants receive papers allowing them to continue to Athens, they risk arrest in police sweeps.
Ironically code-named Xenios Zeus after the ancient Greek god renowned for his hospitality, these checks leave migrants locked up in dark, dirty cells.
Racism is on the rise. Migrants are also now at risk of attack by supporters of far-right parties such as Golden Dawn.
Mustafa, a Somali refugee, has been assaulted twice since his arrival a year ago. ‘The first time there were six of them, all young men, and they started shouting “mavro, mavro”, or “black, black”,’ he explains. ‘They came up behind me. I instinctively put my arm up to protect my head and felt a big stick come down on my wrist… my wrist was broken and my hand just hanging. I was on the ground and they started kicking me.’
In the second attack, he was stabbed and beaten before escaping, covered in blood.
Many say fear of arrest and racist violence is trapping them in their homes. ‘We came here to bring our children to safety but we were wrong,’ Amirah, a Syrian refugee, told Amnesty. ‘We are scared to go out because of the racists, and when we see police we know we could be stopped and put in prison.’
Migrants have taken huge risks to reach Greece in the first place. Faced with a 10.5-kilometre fence along Turkey’s River Evros and increased border patrols, groups launch small, overcrowded inflatable boats from the Turkish coast into the pitch-black, freezing night.
Migrants have told Amnesty that the Greek coastguard often intercepts the survivors, and turns boats back to Turkey, in violation of Greece’s human rights obligations.
Many Greeks are horrified at the rise in racism. Tourists will know the flame of the ancient Greek concept of xenia, kindness to strangers, still burns. But for those fleeing conflict, poverty and hunger, it has become little more than a flicker.
Names have been changed