Homelessness and refugee reception centres in Greece

The jungle of Athens: The housing problem for migrants and the fascist attack

The European Court of Human Rights ruled at the 21st of January 2011 in the case ‘M.S.S. vs Belgium and Greece’ that both countries had violated the rights of an Afghan asylum seeker by expelling him to Athens. The Afghan asylum seeker said that Belgium and Greece had subjected him to degrading treatment in returning him to Athens, and that he had been denied an “effective remedy” against expulsion. Back in Athens he was sleeping in the streets and had been subjected to police violence. The court agreed. The de facto decision of the court was a violation of Article 3 saying that detention AND living conditions in Greece are degrading and that there is an absence of a functioning asylum system.

The problem of housing for refugees in Greece

Currently there are nine reception facilities for unaccompanied minors and nine for asylum seekers – respectively offering 338 and 662 beds. The total number of approx. 1.000 places for the housing of refugees is completely insufficient. In total it is estimated that about 100.000-150.000 undocumented refugees and migrants enter Greece each year, among them maybe around 10.000 unaccompanied minors. The very small number of beds offered by the state and NGOs to refugees – documented or not – just covers the needs of a selected number of ‘highly vulnerable asylum seekers’. Although housing should be offered independently from the status of an asylum seeker, the process of selection and the priority lists are favoring the ones who have already applied for asylum, and among them the most vulnerable – or to be more precise: the ones that it is known that they are highly vulnerable (unaccompanied minors, single mothers, families, individuals with psychological or health problems and sometimes Dublin II cases). If we think of the 55.000 pending asylum cases in Greece, it is easy to count even how few of the documented refugees are supplied with housing.

The majority of refugees is excluded from the right of state provided housing and among these most can be defined as ‘homeless’ in the wider sense. Having no other opportunity of choice, refugees in their largest number sleep in informal hotels run by co-nationals, thus being exposed to all kinds of exploitation and violence. The number of ‘rough sleepers’, refugees staying on the streets, in the parks, under the bridges, in barracks or in construction sites, is unknown. They often remain invisible, walking around all through the night to protect themselves from the cold and the dangers of theft, sexual abuse etc. In a case of an Afghan family sleeping outside during 2010, their homelessness ended up in the sexual abuse of their 7 year old child. … A young African women fell victim to a rapist, who attacked her in the middle of the night while she was sleeping alone on a square in the centre of Athens. A group of unaccompanied minors sleeping under a bridge was attacked by Neonazis with Molotov cocktails.

“I am walking around all the night. I walk through all of Athens. It is to cold to sleep and I am afraid. When I see the sunlight, I look for a safe place to sleep 3-4 hours. I am doing this since one month,” tells Ali (15) from Afghanistan.

“We just arrived in Athens. We were detained in a prison close to the Turkish border for more than one month. Then they brought us to a reception centre for minors. We came to Athens because we want to leave from Greece. Now we sleep in the park, because we don’t have enough money to stay in a hotel. … In the night there are many people sleeping here… also families with small children. Most of them walk all the night up and down and smoke one cigarette after the other until the daylight allows them to sleep in one corner of the park. … We don’t go into this section of the park,” the 14 year old Afghan points towards the trees, “there are these men who come to look out for… you know… young men for sex!”

The fascist attack and the homeless in Attiki in the winter 2010:

Since the beginning of October 2010 the fascist neighbourhood movement of St. Panteleimon and Attiki is occupying and defending the Attiki Square from the “unwanted” refugees living in that area. Even members of the movement are entering migrants shops shouting at people and threatening them. This reality has become daily life.

The ghost-squares of St. Panteleimons and Attiki have become no-go areas for the whole neighbourhood. After more than a year of fascist organising against immigrants, the two squares are being kept occupied by fascist groups. Nobody is crossing the squares, nobody is sitting there – apart form themselves. “We don’t want you here. Go home!” is what they tell and show their immigrant neighbours in the most brutal ways, but in the end of the day this counts for all of us. The invasion of public squares by fascists is a new epidemy in Greece. Every second foreigner can show you a scarf, an injury caused by racist attacks: one has been hit by a knife, the other was beaten… H. has stopped smiling. He lost three teeth when a group of 20 fascists attacked him and his two friends. Now he feels ashamed to smile.

Nobody feels comfortable in the neighbourhoods that are under constant fascist threat – nobody except the police. In groups of up to eight motorbikes, each carrying two of the self-proclaimed city-cowboys, the special police unit DIAS aggressively patrols the streets with sirens and blue-lights. In a rhythm of only a few minutes they pass by again and again hunting the undocumented, arresting them, filling up the prisons with sans-papiers. What they sell as safety is a massive militarization of the streets and the construction of borders in the city. A war against immigration has conquered Athens and has invaded our lives threatening our freedom.

Meanwhile everyday exhausted newcomers are arriving from the border of Turkey, where they are kept like animals in degrading detention centres. Some of them remain homeless after their arrival in Greece and are forced to sleep on the streets and in the parks. Nowadays not even that is possible. Not just because of the cold weather conditions or the police that has started a war against the undocumented and the „unwanted“, patrolling the streets, yelling at them to leave, even kicking women and minors away and taking their blankets and clothes from them. Nowadays it is because one has to be afraid of Greece’s Neonazis. The numbers of racist attacks are much higher than estimated. Every second migrant or refugee living in the neighbourhood reports at least one incident of fascist / racist violence he or she suffered from:

“The first day I arrived in Athens I went to the square. I didn’t know yet about these fascists. There were six young men who immediately came over to me and beat me up. Just like this, without any reason. I finally run away. But this happens to everyone here, you know!”

More than five Afghan families with small children and unaccompanied minors are living in a park nearby Attiki – some of them for more than two months. Some of the families moved somewhere else, because they were very afraid of and horrified by the police. There is a small child with a heart problem, a women alone with her three children, an unaccompanied minor with a swolen eye, children sitting in the cold wearing a T-Shirt, shorts and sandals.

Just around the corner, a public park which has not yet been incarcerated by the fences of the extreme right wing movement. It is late in the night. The lights of the basket-ball court turn off. Shadows of people move from all sides of the park towards the wet playground, lay-out blankets, carry their bags inside. It is time to say goodnight to the cold. Occasionally the shadows shape faces in the yellow shine of the street-lamps. A 12 year old Afghan girl is trying to sweep the water away. Her 9 year old sister sits on a yellow blanket playing with a blond Barbie. A few meters away their parents sit together with other families and share the food of the church they got from the soup-kitchen earlier the day. Some young men – among them unaccompanied minors, Dublin II deportees from Norway and Slovakia and asylum seekers – have already laid down turning their blankets over their heads to be protected from the weather, the lights and the noise. A. is disappointed:

“I have decided to return to Afghanistan. I cannot survive here. I am a minor, still I was registered as 18 year old, like many others. I tried to ask for asylum. I tried to leave. Now I want to return, but the deportation centre (he speaks of IOM) told me I have to wait until March 2011. How can I sleep in this park for another six months? Every night “police bazaar” here. They come and wake us up. They tell us to leave. To go where? Last time they kicked my leg. I still can’t walk. The other day they took all our clothes and our blankets. The Greeks also don’t want us. They tell us. They yell. They even beat people. How can I leave this country faster?”

In the middle of the basketball-court F. is sitting alone emptying out the daily pressure into her diary. She came alone to Greece with her three children. R. is passing by. He is still smiling although somebody stole all his clothes yesterday night. He has not lost hope. It is just one month that the unaccompanied minor arrived in Evros. He wants to leave Greece. The 16 year old was registered by the Greek authorities as 18 year old:

“I told them: I am sixteen – in English. They wrote 18.” S. seems much more desperate. The first time he contacted us, he sent an SMS saying “help-help-help!”

Now he is sitting calmly on his blanket:

“When I came to Greece I managed to escape to Austria. After a while they found my fingerprints in Greece and I got a deportation decision. Before they could send me back I ran away to Slovakia. I asked for asylum there, but they only put me into prison for six months. I was seeing a psychologist during that time, because I have too many problems. I lost all my family in Afghanistan. I have nothing. Then Slovakia deported me with an airplane to Athens. I got a white paper, which was stolen from me in the soup-kitchen when I was waiting to get food. Now I don’t have any paper. I sleep here in the park with my friends. I really have a lot of problems!”

In total there are around 40 refugees sleeping on the basketball-court these days. Most of them are Afghan families. It is not the only public space hosting homeless refugees. They sleep on squares, in parks, under bridges. The majority of refugees in Greece are homeless, but not all of them are rough sleepers. The winter has just begun and business is as usual: The few existing reception centers for refugees are all overcrowded. The new government had announced to build up more housing facilities, but after a year we have seen nothing more than nice rhetoric up to now and refugees still sleeping under the roof of the open sky being subject to all kinds of dangers reaching from the “simple” cold, theft or confiscation of private property up to police raids, fascist assaults and the sexual abuse of unprotected individuals.

“The police came and took our clothes and our blankets away. They were yelling at us. They kicked my leg. I still can’t walk. They want us to leave!”

“They say there are some fascists nearby. We are afraid to go to Attiki. Here they also come and yell at us. I don’t understand what they say.”

“We want to go somewhere safe. We don’t have any money. Maybe we can borrow a little money in order that two of us can move on to other European countries. But there is not money fort he rest of us. We don’t want to stay here, but what can we do? Will my boy get asylum if I send him to Europe?”

“I am alone, my husband died. I have only my three children. Who should help us?”

14th of October 2010: It is around 9.30 in the morning, outside the basketball court newcomers are lying on the benches; one more family with three children, two of them small babies.

“They just arrived this morning, they look for a place to stay… for a room…”

“We were walking around the whole night, we couldn’t sleep because of the rain… some of the babies with their mothers went to sleep near the church of Ag. Panteleimonas,”

says a young Afghan men who was deported from Slovakia. Having no other shelter they risk to be attacked in one of the most “highly protected” areas of Athens. It is the emblem of the victorious “cleaning ups and evacuations” that racist committees of residents together with fascist groups have started against the refugees; a square constantly patrolled by different groups of residents.
Back to the park: Reza, a 14 year old boy, was registered in Evros as 18 years old. He has severe health problems with his eye. Yesterday he was arrested by the police while hanging around at Victoria Park. He had a packet of tablets for his eye in his pocket that “the church” had given to him because of which the police accused him for carrying drugs. They put him inside the car for detainees for some hours and then released him because he was evidently underage. “They put me handcuffs,” he says laughing and showing the marks on his hands. It is not the first time that he was arrested. He stayed in prison at the Evros borders four days. For him as for the others these experiences turn more and more into mere banalities.

Another Afghan boy is passing by. Together with his family they are staying in one of the reception centres for refugees in Athens. They have the exceptional right to stay there for one month as they don’t have fulfilled the precondition of claiming asylum in Greece and then getting the so-called Red Card for asylum seekers. It is an unwritten law in Greece that refugees only find housing opportunities when they apply for asylum and when they belong to specific extra-vulnerable groups such as unaccompanied minors, single mother families etc. “We want to leave Greece, they give no asylum here,” says the youngster. Another anecdote of the disastrous “Greece of refugees” is the topic of a new announcement made by the Athens Bar Association at the 14th of October. They are protesting against the closure of the Attica Aliens Police department and the (repeated) resulting suspension of foreigners’ claims for international protection:
Under the pretext of waiting for the new Transitional Presidential Decree for Asylum, whose entry into force is been delayed, the Attica Aliens Department of Police is illegally keeping the asylum service “closed”. That way claims for international protection cannot practically be lodged circumventing subsequently international treaties…
The young boys’ mother has serious health problem. She is diabetic. During the last days she had a series of a crises and the doctors after treating her in the emergency room sent her to one of the hospitals of Athens for further treatment.

“They did nothing there,” R says. “They just gave her injections, but no further treatment, no exams, no papers that show what she has and no prescription for insulin. My mother needs to take insulin every day. Without a prescription she cannot take the appropriate dosage.” Apart from his mums’ health condition the young boy also worries all the time about the other homeless families. “You know, one room in the guest house that we are living is now empty; probably one of the families could come there?”

It is about 12 o’clock at the Attica Square, a little further from the park and the patrols go on. At the bottom of the square some policemen are controlling the papers of two immigrants. The square is empty; the fascist residents are sitting around the square fulfilling their self-proclaimed “duty”. At that time of the day the “square keepers” are mostly pensioners, men and women that found their personal meaning of life in chasing the refugees out of “their” square; fighting for the “cleanness” of “their neighbourhood” and “their nation”!
Unexpectedly a “new guy” – a refugee is walking thoughtlessly through the middle of the square when suddenly one of the female “square keepers” springs up, starts whistling, approaches him and while pushing him out of the square she is screaming in Greek: “Not here. Out, get out of here! Get the hell out of here!”

Two days later, between 19.30 and 3 o’clock in the morning. A group of the self-proclaimed “indignent” citizens attacks a mini market near the Attica Square, which belongs to a Bangladeshi immigrant:
 “During the attack the Imam of the region together with another immigrant were injured. The conflict became widespread and as a result many were those injured; immigrants and Greeks. Immigrants on their attempt to escape the rage of the “citizens” found refuge in the nearby underground mosque that had been burned a half a year ago; when one policeman tried to tear the Koran that an immigrant was carrying. The “Indignant” residents blocked the entrance to the mosque and they afterwards started breaking the outer glass of the windows by throwing sticks and stones. 5 of the immigrants hidden inside the mosque have been injured. The people inside the mosque had to go out therefore and defend themselves with whatever found in the trash. When police arrived immigrants returned to the mosque, where they remained trapped for more than 1.5 hours. The “indignant” residents remained at the entrance of the mosque, shouting abusive slogans against immigrants and asking from the police to evict them. This was followed by conflicts at the nearby Attica square, where about 80 people were beating immigrants that were passing by.”
It is late in the evening and the small community of homeless Afghans has moved close together to be at least a little bit protected from the rainfalls and the cold of the night. The cardboards used as sofas on the ground are wet. The few umbrellas protect the small children and the women.

“It doesn’t matter to me, it matters to the small children. My pullover will become wet, then it will dry. But the babys, the become sick.”

A few of the families found some temporary housing solutions, still they come and visit their friends outside in the park. Everybody is just thinking of leaving Greece. But how?

The lights of the basketball-court turn off, but nobody moves into the wet court. Above the small crowd of people inside the trees are their bags and blankets. There is no other safe place to store them.

“I will put my children under the umbrella to sleep and I myself will sit awake all the night. Everything I do, is just for them,” M. has tears in her eyes. She is alone with her three children. “But I am strong, I will make it!”

Most of the people are sick. The children have skin problems, the others a cold and all kinds of individual health problems. Instead of an appropriate health treatment the NGOs specialized in medical services can offer them only the recipes for the medicaments they need. But nobody of them can afford to buy them. Instead of being cured thy collect papers.
A group of men and youngsters is chatting about new rumors, about possibilities to leave through embassies on legal ways. They are all tired of Greece, tired of the daily problems, of being exposed to violence. An old man says:

“You know, to get beaten up is normal for us here. It is something usual just like eating bread. We don’t even care anymore. Everybody has been beaten up here!”

The others agree. “When I arrived in Athens, I didn’t know about the fascists,” a 14 year old boy says. His left eye is swollen from an old infection that he has since it was operated three times. “I went to St. Panteleimon looking for a place to stay, somebody to ask where to go. Six men beat me up without any reason. They didn’t like my face maybe. Then I ran away. The other day the police slapped me because I had no paper to show them. I lost it. Greece is not for me. Hopefully you will see me soon in Norway. This is the country I love. It is the best!” He smiles. It will be another long night for them…

We demand…

• From the society to react against rising fascism and police violence
• A sustainable solution for the long lasting housing problem of refugees in Greece
• Adequate protection and equal rights for all people
• Freedom of movement


The infomobile

... is like a “paper boat”. We chose this as a metaphor for what we want to create and for the situation of refugees and migrants in Greece. The paper boat is a folded boat able to swim – for a while. Then you have to build a new one to go on travelling. A paper boat is symbolic for the journey of life, vulnerable but in your own hands and to be recreated again and again. It is simple, but it carries many hopes and dreams. It can dance on a turbulent sea. It belongs to everybody. And it might become the small version – like a first draft – of a welcome-space.

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