If the border to FYROM closes, reception conditions in Athens for refugees will become unbearable!


copyright: Chrissi Wilkens

The borders along the Balkan Route are getting every day more militarized and difficult to cross for transit refugees in Greece. Since two months just protection seekers from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan can pass the greek-macedonian border near Idomeni. Refugees of other nationalities are therefore forced to chose hidden paths and try to go to Northern Europe with the help of smugglers using dangerous routes. Many of them actually get stuck in Greece under inhuman and degrading conditions due to a lack of money to continue their perilous journey. The country is unable to cope with the steady peak in number of arrivals – i.e. last year there were more than 860,000 coming to Greece. According to recent media reports, the EU plans to practically ‘fence’ Greece in order to stop the (safe) passage of refugees. Plans include the threat to kick Greece out of the Sengen Zone if the government doesn’t improve border controls. A closure of the border along the Balkan route would lead without doubt to a massive humanitarian crisis in Greece when thousands of refugees have to stay in limbo in a country without any infrastructure which is itself hit strongly by half a decade of economic crisis.

“I am trying since more than one month to make an asylum request at the Asylum Service in Athens, but I can’t get access!”, says A. a 19-year-old refugee from Sierra Leone who is staying in the open transfer camp in the district of Elaionas in Athens.

Because of the lack of personal the application for an appointment to register an asylum application or an application for family reunification in the once highly acclaimed new asylum authority, can be currently only carried out almost exclusively via Skype based on a schedule for the different languages. Once a week, on Wednesdays from 11 to 13 clock for example refugees who speak English or French, can try their luck. “We are refugees. We don’t have phones or internet and not money to pay for that. It’s the duty of the state to ensure access to the asylum procedure. We, refugees from non-SIA countries (SIA – Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan) face already discrimination, because just Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis (SIA) are allowed to cross the border”, he adds. Since a few days refugees can try through a PC within the camp via Skype to reach the Asylum Service. A. and the other refugees from Sierra Leone hope that this week they will succeed. “Our 30-day paper is no longer valid. We are afraid that we will end up in a prison”, says A.O., a 20-year-old refugee from Somalia, who has direct access to the asylum authority, because he speaks Somali. For this language protection seekers can every go every Wednesday and Thursday in person to the Asylum Service and ask for asylum. But O. had no luck, although he already went last week at 6:30 in the queue in front of the door: “They choose a family that had come after me. And then it was over. The rest of the refugees from Somalia have to try the next week“, says O. The number of asylum requests in Greece are getting higher and higher the last months, since there are more restrictions for the border crossings. Only in December 2015 there where almost 70 percent more asylum request compared to the average monthly number of 2014. And this despite the fact that the living conditions for refugees are inhuman in Greece.

With an average number of annually 10,000 asylum applications in the past three years, at the beginning of 2015 there were still only 1,150 housing spaces for asylum seekers. Now there are 2.190 – so the information from the Athens office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. UNHCR announced since summer the creation of another 20.000 more housing places but until know, there is no big progress.

Despite the bad weather conditions, the number of arrivals remains high. According to the UNCHR from the beginning of 2016 more than 44,000 refugees and migrants enter Greece . The smugglers are requesting halve prices on the dangerous crossing in bad weather. Hundreds risk their lives for fear that the borders will be completely closed soon. From the begging of the year more than 350 refugees lost in the Aegean their lives or are missing, among them many children. M., a 20-year-old woman from Somalia, has already this dangerous trip behind her. In front of her is yet another risky way to go. The young woman is housed in a former Olympic sports complex in Elliniko district in Athens that serves as a temporary holding center. The food is not good, and sometimes they have to drink water out of the toilet, she says. She not even thinks about the possibility to apply for asylum in Greece. “We refugees don’t trust the Greek asylum service. We don’t think that the Greek state can provide us with the necessary to survive.” She wants to try to cross the border with the help of smugglers although she already has tried that once along with some other African refugees, but without success. “We walked for five days through forests, over hills and through rivers until we got intercepted in front of the Macedonian-Serbian border by the police who deported us back to Greece,” said the young woman. Next to her is a woman with crutches. She was seriously injured when the smuggler she uttered her from the one site of the river to the other.

On this dangerous route protection seekers fall very often victims of police violence or robberies, report refugees and aid workers alike. Medicines Sans Frontieres (MSF) have registered a shocking number of injured refugees on the Greek-Macedonian border. Since the border closure at 18. November 2015 until 9 January 2016, the team had treated a total of 688 people in the Greek border town Idomeni. 70 of them had signs exhibited by external violence which were, according to protection seekers caused by police in Macedonia. The Doctors of the World have registred in Idomeni 151 injuries in the period 21.12-31.12.2015, of which 94 were caused by violence. In the period from January 4.-12., 2016 social workers have registered 112 testimonies about injuries caused by external violence influence. The doctor Vangelis Tsilis from the NGO Praksis treated many victims of violence within the last weeks. Refugees that came back to Athens from the borders were injured but still wanted to try immediately again to cross. “I have seen people with broken ribs who got first aid from me, and who told me they’d go right back to the border. Or a man with a serious injury on his head who asked me to make the stitches in a way, that he could pass the border again the next days.” Despite the high risks M. also wants to try again to take the Balkan route to Northern Europe. “We refugees have no confidence in the Greek asylum system. We do not believe that the state can guarantee us the basic need for survival.”

The relocation procedure is also no option for most refugees as it is currently open only for certain nationalities, with highly limited numbers. Most refugees are not well informed about the process anyway. Greeks migration minister Giannis Mouzalas told this week that the first half of the relocation program expires in a few days and there should already be 13,000 slots ready in European countries. Instead, there are only 900 places open. While Greece has 930 people ready to be relocated, until now only 220 procedures were completed. “They tell us not to send them black people, not to send a family with seven children, but with five… and other incredible things”, said Mouzalas about the requirements of the EU counties which participate in the relocation program.

J. a 36 years old refugee from Uganda is also preparing to try again and cross the border with the help of smugglers. He already tried three times without success. “The third time I got beaten. Maybe they wanted to frighten me so that I don’t try it again and again”, he says. K. and Z. from Morocco got also beaten when the police in Macedonia caught them after two times trying to pass the border. Despite the police violence they had to deal also with attacks by local mafia in Macedonia. “When they see refugees they come and encircle them and try to get their money, or demand from every refugee money in order to let them move on.” The two men are staying in Elliniko. They decided not to try again and signed a paper of voluntary return handed to them by the International Organization of Migration (IOM) to go back to Morocco. But their attempts to reach Europe will not end here. “I want to be honest. I will return back to my country, but I will try to reach Europe again from Libya. I have no family and nothing to lose. My country is beautiful, but there is no work for us there and it is very difficult to survive”, says Z.

S. another refugee from Marocco is schocked after his attempts to exit Greece. The young man tried more than six times. “We were 10-15 refugees. The police caught us and told us to kneel down. One of us -his name is Asraf- tried to escape, so they shot and killed him. I saw it with my own eyes”, says S. “Along this route people die from hunger, from cold, as a consequence of criminal assaults – and no one speaks about this”, says S. a 45 year old woman from Uganda. Last week in Idomeni a Moroccan died after a fight with other refugees. This is the second officially registered death of a refugee there, following another Moroccan who died on the train rails in the beginning of December.

The group “Volunteers of Thessaloniki” have documented shocking statements from refugees who were deported to Idomeni, Greece.
In a testimony refugees that passed the borders from some other crossing point said: “As we walked near the river (Axios), we saw two corpses. Their eyes were missing. Their bodies were cut with open chests and bellies.” It’s the second statement about a similar case within one month, so the volunteers. In another case, a group of young Moroccans arrived on the same night back to the camp, also beaten. “We were inside the forest when they discovered us. They started beating and shooting at us. A kid was shot on the leg. He stayed back. We don’t know what happened to him”, the refugees reported to the volunteers. “Everyday, some meters outside our borders, police and army of Skopje are maltreating refugees and tolerating burglary, rapes, abductions and living medical operations from organized crime gangs.A safari of human beings of another category is played right next to us and this can never leave us uninvolved.”, so the group Volunteers from Thessaloniki in an open letter.

At Victoria Square in Athens A. from Algeria is trying to find warm clothes. For about three weeks he is sleeping with other refugees on the square, only protected by a sleeping bag. Many fear that if they go to a camp, they will end up in detention centers. A. tried a few days ago to pass the border with false documents, but without success. Police in Macedonia, arbitrarily decides who can pass and who not, he says. Often you must lubricate the policemen if you want to pass he says. “If they like you, they let you cross the border, if they don’t, you will be send back again to the starting point… .” A. is now trying to find a job in Greece in order to earn a little money and try again to pass the borders. “We are looking for peace. A place to live in dignity”, he says.

H. from Pakistan is another homeless refugee in Athens. „Where can I stay? I am sleeping in the streets of Athens since I arrived in Greece. I have no friends here, nobody who can help me. I am desperate”, he says. We inform him about the possibility to go and stay in the camp in Elliniko which is for the time the only camp in Athens, were single men from countries like Pakistan ore Morocco have good possibilities to be accepted.

In Athens anarchist have occupated two buildings in order to host refugees. In one squat in Notara street there are mainly families hosted for some days. In another squat in Themistokleous Street also single men are hosted, but the place is most of the times full. In Elaionas camp single men can be also hosted in theory, but the place is accepting mainly families.

The greek government now plans to open a relocation camp for refugees in Athens with a capacity of 1.500 people. Another similar camp will be opened in Thessaloniki, stated Migration Minister Mouzalas. According to him, in case that the northern borders of Greece will be closed, which is the worst case scenario, he estimates that 50.000-70.000 refugees will get stuck in Greece. Most of them will leave the country within a period less than a year, he predicts.