(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • A Syrian refugee family’s year-long Greek odyssey

    By the time Ilida Alali was 16, she had been a prisoner in her own home for four years. Both government and rebel ordnance fell without warning on the hotly contested Karm al-Myassar neighbourhood near Aleppo’s airport where she and her family lived. In any case, she had nowhere to go. Opposition groups had occupied the area’s schools since she was 13.


    In January last year she asked her father, Ahmed, if she could go out to buy some crisps. “I said ‘okay’,” he recalled. “She went as far as the corner shop and that’s when the bomb fell. When I heard the explosion, I ran out and I found the place covered in dust and my daughter in pieces.”


    Ilida’s death was the final straw for the family. Ahmed’s wife, Ramia Aldaher, had already lost a sister and three brothers to the war. A month later, the entire extended Alali and Aldaher families – some 41 people – stole out of Aleppo under cover of night.


    “We took nothing – just the clothes we were wearing and our IDs,” said Ramia. They trekked more than 1,000 kilometres to Izmir on Turkey’s Aegean coast and crossed to the Greek island of Lesvos in a rubber dinghy.


    Stuck in Greece


    The Alali family had fled a civil war only to land in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. An estimated 850,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Greece during 2015 and another 150,000 during the first three months of 2016. Most continued through the Balkans towards northern Europe, where member states were increasingly desperate to stem the flow.


    Fences went up on the Greek border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia three weeks before the Alali family arrived. They managed to leave Lesvos just two days before the EU-Turkey agreement went into force, which would have kept them there during their asylum process, but their plan to reach Germany on foot had to be scrapped.


    The closed border had left more than 50,000 refugees stranded in mainland Greece – too many for civil authorities to house. Under pressure from the European Commission, the Greek military set up 30 tent cities on industrial sites and disused army bases across the country.


    Most of these camps were far from urban centres and difficult for aid organisations to reach. With almost no time to prepare the sites, they initially lacked basic amenities such as running water, bathrooms, heat, and electricity.


    John Psaropoulos/IRIN
    Ritsona, a former Hellenic Airforce base north of Athens, was hastily converted into a tent camp for 800 refugees

    From warehouse to camp


    On 17 March, the Alali family arrived at the place they would be forced to call home for the next six months – a cavernous warehouse behind Gate 10A in Thessaloniki’s port.


    “For about the first month we slept on the floor in sleeping bags given out by the army. Then the mayor visited us and asked the army to send us cots,” said Ahmed.


    The mayor also ordered the delivery of heating units, portable lavatories, showers, and electricity, but 450 people were still sharing a space where blankets hung from ropes provided the only modicum of privacy. 


    These arrangements came to an abrupt end when an electrical fire broke out one September morning as people slept. The warehouse was cleared and the Alali family was moved to a tent in Langadikia camp, east of the city.


    “The sun hit our tent at seven in the morning and we had to get up. During the middle of the day we had to go to the forest and sit under the shade of the trees,” Ahmed told IRIN. “When winter came, it rained and the whole tent was drenched. The water came up through the ground... Sometimes we asked for new blankets and were told that there weren’t enough, so we slept under wet blankets.”  


    Surviving the winter


    Worse was to come. In mid-December, overnight temperatures dropped below freezing, and, in January, rain turned to snow. Residents of the camp tried to take refuge in the few brick buildings available, “but there wasn’t enough room for everyone,” said Ramia.


    And yet there was plenty of room in Greece. The financial crisis and the introduction of a new property tax in 2011 had brought property sales virtually to a standstill. Hundreds of thousands of apartments stood vacant as unemployed adults moved back in with their parents.


    In December 2015, the European Commission had announced an €80 million rent subsidy programme to provide 20,000 accommodation places for refugees in Greece during the following year. The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, was tasked with implementing the scheme, but progress was slow. By early October 2016, it had secured only 13,000 spots, leaving thousands of families still living in tents and warehouses during the height of Greece’s coldest winter in years.  


    “We had this horrible winter and the conditions in camps deteriorated so badly that we were really afraid at one point that people would actually die of hypothermia in the camps - especially newborns, who were turning blue,” said Anne Forget who manages the Urban Response Programme of the Norwegian Refugee Council.


    Antipathy and broken promises

    The NRC wanted to help address the housing problem before it became a crisis, but it took the NGO months to get its project proposal approved by the European Commission, for the money to be disbursed and for the Council to recruit staff and house people. It wasn't until November that Forget's teams could start touring half a dozen camps in the area to identify those in greatest need of being moved into bricks-and-mortar housing.


    But despite the housing glut, the NRC struggled to find apartments to rent. Landlords were wary of a programme that was funded for only months at a time, and of having refugees as tenants.


    “Mainly the objections were: ‘I don’t want to rent to refugees because they are dirty, they have diseases, they will break my apartment. I don’t want to rent for a short period of time. Your rate is too low,’” said Forget.


    In an effort to stay ahead of the worsening weather, the NRC decided to move 400 individuals into hotels. This enabled pregnant women, the sick, the elderly and families like the Alalis to move out of tents. But the cost was high: The NRC paid €25 a night for each hotel resident – some €4,500 a month for the Alali family of six alone.


    UNHCR eventually stepped up its efforts, and by the end of 2016 had housed 21,000 refugees, nearly 12,000 of them in apartments.


    The agency’s spokesman in Greece, Roland Schoenbauer, said the scheme was designed to provide temporary accommodation for asylum seekers while they awaited relocation to another EU country, and that many more would have benefited if EU members had honoured their pledges to take in a total of 63,000 refugees from Greece. To date, less than 10,000 refugees have been relocated from the country.


    Greek Migration Minister Yannis Mouzalas has also come in for criticism for the slow rate of progress on refugee housing despite unprecedented levels of EU funding. “You are responsible for 60,000 people with a billion euros: more than anyone ever had at his disposal,” said conservative MP Miltiadis Varvitsiotis in parliament last month, referring to the funds the European Commission says it has earmarked or disbursed to Greece for refugees since 2015. “I think any local government official would have done a better job than you.”


    Privacy, at last


    Over the last month, the NRC has finally begun to transfer refugees into longer-term housing. It has put the Alali family up in an apartment for a quarter of the cost of the hotel, and estimates that through such savings it will be able to house some 2,168 people* in apartments by July.


    For now, furnishings are sparse: “it’s mattresses on the floor; one mattress per person, one pillow per person, a fridge, a double stove… There’s no tables, no chairs, no frames, even, for the beds and no Wi-Fi,” said Forget.


    The Alalis don’t seem to mind. After walking across Asia Minor and living in a warehouse, an open-air camp, and a hotel, here, for the first time, they have a space of their own, and they are living among Greeks rather than refugees. They beckon guests to their only furniture – a sofa bed left by the owner, its springs long ago caved in – and sit cross-legged on the tile floor while their four children, aged six to 17, retire to equally empty bedrooms. “We are happy that we are in Greece. We are not in a good situation, but we are safe and better than before,” said Ramia.


    John Psaropoulos/IRIN
    Ilaf and Ali Alali recline against three mattresses which comprise their bedroom furniture

    Menios Skordas, a hotelier who rents nine studio apartments to Syrian and Afghan families referred to him by the NRC, admits he was hesitant at first, but explained: “When I saw the faces of the children I lost every inhibition.”


    He has noticed that they, too, have acclimatised. “For the first two months, they were very afraid,” he told IRIN. “Now they’re going to the supermarket. Once or twice they’ve taken the bus… The kids are amazing learners. In two months, they are able to communicate in Greek.”


    Mutual benefit

    Schoenbauer of UNHCR described apartment living as a double benefit. “Just a few weeks ago, I visited a Syrian family in an apartment close to our office,” he said. “They told me: ‘Every day our Greek neighbours are knocking at our door asking whether we needed anything.’ This is the kind of interaction that starts the process of integration from both sides and this is an underestimated benefit of the whole programme.”


    There are benefits for the Greek economy as well. The crisis has depressed real estate prices by more than 40 percent since 2007, and 45 percent in the Thessaloniki area. Rents have fallen proportionally. UNHCR spent the European Commission’s €80 million plus another €5.4 million in donations on apartments and hotels last year. It could top that budget this year.


    “The money [landlords] get is much, much better than what they’d get on the [open] market,” said Thessaloniki real estate agent Stefanos Vasileiadis, commenting on clients who have rented to Syrian families via the NRC.


    Of the original group of 41 Alali and Aldaher extended family members, 27 have been relocated to Germany. Most of the rest are scattered across camps in northern Greece, where conditions are not as bad as they once were. Tents have been replaced by mobile housing units, adults receive a monthly stipend of €150 to feed themselves, and children can now attend Greek schools.


    John Psaropoulos/IRIN
    A Syrian boy shows his family's mobile home at the Diavata camp on the western outskirts of Thessaloniki

    Currently, 29,000 refugees are still living in camps, including 14,200 on the islands (where the official capacity is just under 9,000), but Mouzalas assured parliament last week that another 10,000 people will be moved to apartments in 2017 and, “if the EU-Turkey agreement holds”, a further 10,000 in 2018.


    Ahmed and Ramia have also applied for their family to relocate to Germany, a process that may take many more months. In the meantime, they’re enjoying the privacy and space of their apartment, but they aren’t enrolling their children in Greek schools or putting down roots. They want to start new lives in Germany before doing that.

    (TOP PHOTO: The surviving members of the Alali family in their sparsely furnished living room. John Psaropoulos/IRIN)

    *This figure was amended from an earlier version of the story based on updated information from the NRC


    A Syrian refugee family’s year-long Greek odyssey
    Refugees in Greece finally swap canvas for bricks and mortar
  • Mixed marks as Greece opens schools to refugees

    When the 2pm bell rings at the 66th Middle School in Athens, scores of Greek children pour out of the three-storey building and through the school gates. Silence descends for about 20 minutes before coaches pull up and disgorge dozens of refugee middle schoolers. They are barely distinguishable from their Greek counterparts. They wear the jeans, sports shoes, and backpacks universal to 13- to 15-year-olds.


    One difference between the two groups of students reveals itself in the classroom: the newcomers are more desperate to learn. Refugee students spring out of their seats to race each other in long multiplication on the blackboard while the rest of the class cheers them on. A small class of Syrians, Afghans, and Iranians eagerly takes turns reading the months of the year in English.


    “When the bell has rung, they want you to stay on and explain something,” says English teacher Maria Liakopoulou. “When it’s the last period on Friday, they often demand more homework,” adds maths teacher Dimitra Anatoliti.


    “They are kids who make demands, want things, and are motivated,” says Alexandra Androusou, a professor of education science at Athens University who helped draft the Greek education ministry’s after-hours programme for refugees, launched in October.


    “They have suffered unspeakable and unspoken things… To go from a war zone and get to Greece and see people drown on the way… makes them very knowledgeable about life. No child raised in the Western world has this knowledge. But this also means they are very demanding.”


    Building trust


    Androusou led teams of her university students in a year-long project at the Elaionas refugee camp, from which the 66th school draws its students. At first, many parents didn’t let their children out of their mobile homes. Androusou’s team performed a pied piper trick. “They went around the camp playing musical instruments to announce their presence and children would come out of their mobile homes and follow,” she recalls. “In the beginning, many of the doors didn’t open. By the middle [of the year], all the doors opened, children would be pushed out, and the parents would thank us.”


    The team took some 70 children, aged five to 15, under its wing. There was no common language. Many had never been to school and couldn’t draw straight lines with a ruler. They ripped the paper they were given. Collaboration on group projects was next to impossible.


    But, by playing games, the team gradually formed a relationship of trust and began to introduce Greek and English words. They also instilled basic discipline. “The children needed rules and boundaries and wanted them… because boundaries at this age allow creativity; they allow access to knowledge,” says Androusou. By the end of the year the children were arriving on time, following instructions and working on group art projects.




    The closure of borders in the Balkans earlier this year has left Greece with a standing population of about 60,000 refugees. At last count, 38,000 were asylum seekers, many of whom have applied to move elsewhere in Europe, but staffing shortages and constant new arrivals mean a long wait before their cases are decided. The result: an estimated 20,000 children will spend some or all of the current academic year in Greece. When the Syriza government announced its intention to educate all those above the age of six – about 14,000 minors – there was an uproar in parts of society.


    Critics of the plan raised the question of money; but the programme, estimated to cost a little over €21 million, is being funded entirely by the European Union and is providing some 800 part-time jobs to Greek teachers.


    Of greater immediate concern for parents of children who would share their schools with the refugees was the issue of health and hygiene. In recent years, refugee and immigrant populations have contributed to a return of malaria and tuberculosis to the country, diseases that had been almost eradicated by vaccination and insecticide spraying.


    When Ilias Papastavrou, the headmaster of the 66th school, told parents it would be operating an after-hours refugee programme, “they wanted to know that the refugees will be vaccinated, as the law stipulates for Greek kids,” he says. “They wanted to know that the school would be cleaned after the evening programme to be ready to admit the Greek kids in the morning.”




    At some schools, reactions were more extreme. Last September, parents in the Panorama district of the northern port city of Thessaloniki occupied their children’s school to prevent refugees entering. In Volvi, north of Thessaloniki, parents refused to send their children to school at all, until they were threatened with a court order.

    Related Stories:

    The giant refugee holding cells in the Aegean

    Young, alone, abused

    Refugees in Greece take first steps towards self-reliance

    Despite such reactions, the programme, which includes Greek, English or German, maths, computing, sport, music, and art, has now been rolled out at 37 schools nationwide. Hundreds of refugee children living in squats and UN-sponsored rentals in central Athens have also enrolled as regular students at Greek schools, even though many don’t intend to stay in the country.


    “Some parents don’t want their children to learn Greek because we don’t need it,” says Somaya Suleiman, a Syrian mother who lives at a squat in a disused school building in central Athens.


    “[For the first] two or three days [my son] hated Greek school…. But now he likes to go to this school because he has a relationship with new friends.”


    Religious intolerance


    The problems the refugee students encounter, beyond the academic, are emblematic of broader, European concerns. “Some people are afraid of me when they see we have [the] hijab,” says Marzia Jemilli, a remarkably articulate 15-year-old Afghan who wants to be a neurosurgeon.


    Jemilli says she has encountered religious prejudice at her multicultural high school in Hellenikon, a southern suburb of Athens. Multicultural schools were established for the children of eastern European refugees after the fall of communism, but are now increasingly filled with Afghans and Syrians. Her school holds an organised morning prayer for Christians, but not for Muslims. She suggested rectifying this. The school has so far refused, on the grounds that it has students adhering to five different religions.


    John Psaropoulos/IRIN
    Refugee students race each other in long multiplication on the blackboard at the 66th Middle School in Athens

    Although the school programme has been largely successful, both Greeks and refugees are aware that work, the ultimate integrator, will be the greater problem in Greece’s recessive economy. “Even if they appreciate the fact that as a country we have accepted them as warmly as we can, they know they have no future here. There are no jobs for them,” says Elli, a Greek volunteer.


    Androusou is mindful of the broader European failure at assimilating migrants and refugees, but she insists that education is the key to a more open society. Ideological racism, she says, is a minority trend here, and parents who protested against refugees going to school with their children suffered from ignorance and fear. “School is the battering ram that will put these people into society.”

    (TOP PHOTO: Shezie and Ravina from Afghanistan chat as they settle in to English class at the 66th Middle School in Athens. John Psaropoulos/IRIN)


    Mixed marks as Greece opens schools to refugees
    Children are flourishing despite pockets of resistance and religious intolerance
  • The giant refugee holding cells in the Aegean

    Everyone knows everyone else in the village of Vavyloi on the Greek island of Chios. Such intimacy had long meant an absence of crime and a feeling of security. That all changed about a month ago when farmers noticed onions and potatoes being gouged out of their fields overnight. When the house break-ins started, the villagers began forming four-man night patrols.


    “We take a piece of wood or plastic piping. We’re not trying to hurt them; we’re trying to deter them,” said Yannis Siderakis, the village mechanic. He was referring to the hundreds of refugees and migrants camped a mile away at a bankrupt aluminium moulding plant known by its acronym, VIAL.


    Purchased by the municipality last year to serve as a refugee shelter, VIAL’s cavernous concrete nave and an adjoining fenced-in area of mobile housing units were meant to become a locked-down facility for processing asylum claims – a so-called ‘hotspot’ – when the EU’s agreement with Turkey came into force in late March.


    Six months later, there are 3,800 migrants and refugees on Chios, three times the number VIAL was designed for. All are free to move around the island.


    “On our first night out [on patrol], I bumped into a thief,” said Siderakis. “I saw a black man running with plastic bags. I shouted at him; he dropped the bags and ran. I didn’t chase him. He had broken into a house and taken spirits, women’s cosmetics, an iron, slippers, socks – not valuable things, but he turned the place inside out. The owner was in shock.”


    There are similar stories in Chios town, where the spillover from VIAL has spawned two tent cities. “We were robbed once. They took a bottle of whisky and a bottle of cognac. Next door, they took beers,” said Adamantios Frangakis, the owner of a café around the corner from the town hall.


    A destructive deal


    The EU-Turkey agreement has changed views on migration here. While refugees were transiting through the islands on their way to the Balkans throughout the summer of 2015, islanders offered them food, clothing and assistance. But now that they are a stationary and growing population, the strains on local resources are showing.


    Under the deal, in exchange for six billion euros from the EU over two years and a pledge from Brussels to relax visa rules for Turkish nationals, Turkey was to prevent as many refugees from setting out from its shores as possible, and readily readmit those caught on its territorial waters. Turkey also agreed to accept refugees and asylum seekers returned from Greece, on the basis (disputed by rights activists) that Turkey is a safe, third country. The deal appears to have had the desired effect. Arrivals to Greece so far this year have reached 166,000, compared to 385,000 by the end of September 2015.


    But the deal has also turned Greece’s eastern Aegean islands into holding centres. Those rescued by the Hellenic Coast Guard are shipped to the islands of Lesvos, Samos, Chios, Leros, and Kos, and confined there until their first asylum interview has been conducted. Depending on the outcome, they are either given permission to complete the asylum process on the mainland or deported back to Turkey. But so far, just 509 people have been returned to Turkey under the deal and there are now some 14,000 refugees on the islands, overwhelming facilities built for half that number. More arrive nearly every day.


    “The EU-Turkey deal has limited flows [of refugees], but it is destroying the economy, destroying the sense of security, and as a result destroying social cohesion,” Chios Mayor Manolis Vournous told IRIN.


    Turning to crime


    Overcrowding and increasing frustration among the refugees was one factor that sparked last week’s riot and fire at the Moria hotspot on Lesvos. Tensions are also building on Chios, where Vournos described islanders and refugees as fellow inmates. “[Refugees’] confinement is not really administered,” he told IRIN. “It’s simply the island’s natural boundaries. Water is the barrier. But that also includes [the] 50,000 people of Chios.”


    Marios and several other Syrian refugees have been sleeping on the floor of the island’s small municipal theatre. A makeshift curtain of blankets hangs on a rope, separating the men from an area for women and children.


    “Conditions here are awful,” he told IRIN, readily admitting that people are so desperate that they are learning how to steal. “I’m a person who knows how to do a dozen different things… I would go to work in the fields for as little as 15-20 euros a day just to be able to buy cigarettes.”


    “We know the people of Chios aren’t to blame, but neither are we,” said Marios. “Do they want us to leave? Give us our papers and we’ll go today. Do they want to deport us? Deport us and let’s have done.”


    John Psaropoulos/IRIN
    One of the tent cities housing refugees in Chios town

    Asylum applicants are allowed to work, but small island economies don’t provide enough opportunity for thousands of outside labourers; and Greek unemployment now stands at 23 percent – the highest in Europe.


    The economy of Chios has suffered setbacks unrelated to the migrants. Tourism has been falling, as measured by airport arrivals, from more than 16,000 eight years ago to just over 7,000 in 2015. Also this year, a fire devastated its mastic tree plantations. Mastic sap and its byproducts have been Chios’s signature export since Ottoman times.


    Fears about security and economic pressures have contributed to heated discussions about where to house the refugees. After a stormy municipal council meeting last week, Vournous was forced to evacuate the municipal theatre. Eventually, he also plans to evacuate the second tent city in town and create a large camp at a former landfill, which has been re-landscaped but still lacks water and electricity.


    Solving the problem


    Moving the refugees out of sight might give some island residents a little peace of mind, but it won’t solve all the problems their presence creates. Vournous is furious that the Greek Asylum Service isn’t processing people off the island faster. “The EU and Greek authorities aren’t doing their job,” he said. “Who is measuring their effectiveness?”


    The European Asylum Support Office declared its intention to send 700 caseworkers to Greece after the March deal. So far 200 have arrived: only 126 are on the islands, and just 20 are conducting interviews.


    Part of the problem is that EASO can’t oblige EU countries to contribute caseworkers. “We have asked for more staff from the member states,” said EASO spokesman Jean-Pierre Schembri. “[But] they are under pressure in their own country if you look at the backlog in the EU member states, which is over 1.1 million cases.” Eighteen mobile interview units stacked up inside the VIAL hotspot amply illustrate EASO’s frustrated ambition. Only a few of them are in use. 


    “Every day the islands receive an average of 120 fresh arrivals and no more than 50 asylum applications are adjudicated, while another 9,000 languish in the queue,” said Christiana Kalogirou, prefect of the North Aegean region. “That is why the critical issue is the staffing of the asylum services.”


    Pressure on the islands could have been relieved. A year ago, EU members agreed to relocate 160,000 asylum applicants from Greece and Italy. But only 4,776 relocations have so far taken place from Greece, a performance the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, called an “unnecessarily slow” implementation of a “woefully inadequate” pledge.


    Vournous believes the EU should make amends by offering the islands of the eastern Aegean some form of development assistance. “That’s the least it can do because I am carrying out its policy to prevent Germany, Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Spain from flooding with people,” he said. “I would expect it to help me develop the economy, to show that we won’t always be a frontier post; but it has no wish to do this.”

    (TOP PHOTO: A Syrian girl looks out of the doorway of her family's tent at the Souda camp in Chios town. John Psaropoulos/IRIN)



    The giant refugee holding cells in the Aegean
  • Refugees in Greece take first steps towards self-reliance

    Masoud proudly lifts his bedding to reveal the construction of his makeshift bed. He has hammered together four wooden pallets and fitted legs underneath. Poorly padded by a yoga mat covered by two woollen blankets, it seems to radiate heat in the airless June afternoon. But the 34-year-old Syrian chef has a solution for the stifling conditions too.


    Outside the three-tent compound he has stitched together for his family of four, he has constructed a sort of summerhouse in the shade of some pine trees: a platform raised on several metal drums and rendered private by a bedsheet. Masoud’s wife, Mezgin, spends her afternoons there cooling off, while four-year-old Mohamed digs holes in the earth with a claw-hammer and elder sister Linda, nine, works on a potted flower garden. Masoud has even built an earthen cooking stove, connected to a chimney on one side and an oven on the other. He fuels it with dead wood foraged from the surrounding pine forest.


    This Syrian refugee version of the Swiss Family Robinson is part of a growing narrative in self-reliance at Ritsona, a former Hellenic Air Force radar station about 100 kilometres north of Athens. The facility has been abandoned for decades and, even by rural Greek standards, it is the middle of nowhere.


    Three months ago, as borders were reinstated across the Balkans and more than 50,000 refugees who had intended to make their way to northern Europe became stranded in Greece, the government began parcelling them out to abandoned military camps. Some 800 landed in Ritsona. Many have applied for asylum in Greece or relocation elsewhere in Europe, but both processes are likely to take months.


    For volunteers and NGOs, as well as the refugees themselves, the emphasis has shifted. Initially, it was about providing anything and everything that was needed. Now, it’s more about helping the refugees fend for themselves, handing out tools and pallets for example.


    “For the first month it wasn’t happening at all,” says Ryan DeHane Templeton, an American volunteer with Echo 100 Plus, a Vienna-based charity. “But in the last three weeks it’s grown immensely.”


    John Psaropoulos/IRIN
    Masoud shows his home-made oven

    Taking the initiative


    Across a dirt road from Masoud, another Syrian, Shem, has built a two-storey tree house to keep his pregnant young wife cool, draping pine needle-covered branches around it to provide privacy and shade. He is trying to coax rose vines out of four plastic water bottles.


    The camp has no running water, and only the storeroom has electricity, yet one of the refugees has managed to install a satellite dish and children now sit around an ancient donated television.


    Echo 100 Plus is encouraging the refugees to use their own initiative. “We have a couple of sewing machines and a couple of tailors [who are refugees] living in the camp who are going to start making the clothes that we’re having difficulty finding,” says Templeton. “More conservative clothing is hard for us to find here in Greece. So, for example, they’ll start to produce long skirts for themselves.”


    Some of the refugees find a sense of purpose by volunteering as translators and in other capacities for NGOs like Echo 100 Plus. One of the most sought-after translators is 23 year-old Soham Yazidi from Iraqi Kurdistan. She speaks Arabic, Kurdish and English, and finds the work therapeutic – especially as much of it is done in a pair of tents that serve as a Red Cross clinic.


    “I try to spend my time translating, helping volunteers with food distribution, helping with clothes distribution, helping in the hospital,” she says. “I’m trying to spend my time away from the tents because life is really horrible here. But I’m trying to have hope; talking to people and taking some hope from them.”


    Education and sanitation


    In another effort to try to achieve a semblance of normality in the camp, a Canadian charity, Light House Relief, has fenced off an area for educational activities. “The kids are wanting to go to school and parents are trying to make sure their kids are on time,” says Patti Fink, a volunteer. “That’s part of the intent – to get kids to understand what it’s like to go to school and get into that routine.”


    The Greek migration ministry has announced that it will open schools with Arabic- and Dari-speaking teachers in all the camps by September. In the meantime, the children of Ritsona, many of whom have never attended school, are taught punctuality, cleanliness and the ABC song under the shade of two enormous Aleppo pines.


    John Psaropoulos/IRIN
    Children are taught the ABC song in a schoolyard set up by volunteers

    Other improvements are on the way. An air force excavator has prepared a trench for a sewage pipe – in a matter of weeks, Ritsona will have flushing lavatories rather than a bank of portable toilets.


    On the outskirts of the camp, four plots of land demarcated with stones are the beginnings of a vegetable garden, currently on hold until irrigation water becomes available.


    Even with all this self-empowerment, refugees at the camp are largely cut off from Greek society, a society that many of them will eventually join if their asylum applications are successful.


    The longer term


    Some would like to see efforts to integrate the roughly 57,000 refugees currently stranded in Greece go a lot further. Spyridon Galinos, mayor of the island of Lesvos, which received more than half a million of the refugees who passed through Greece last year, wants the European Commission to subsidise a job creation scheme that would allow hundreds or even thousands of refugees to settle on the island permanently.


    “The only condition I asked was that a certain number of jobs should be created, half of which would be filled by refugees and half by locals,” he told IRIN, adding that several villages on the island had empty houses where the refugees could stay.


    Galinos said such a scheme would serve as a form of compensation for the millions of euros his municipality has paid in water and electricity bills for refugee camps. The European Commission has yet to respond to his proposal and more than 8,000 asylum seekers remain incarcerated on the islands of the east Aegean with no scope for integration. They arrived after the EU-Turkey agreement was signed and must go through a process to determine their eligibility to remain in Greece before they can even begin the asylum procedure.


    Another 11,000 were evacuated from informal camps in the border area near Idomeni last month and relocated to hurriedly erected facilities in abandoned industrial sites.


    Phoebe Ramsay, an independent volunteer from Canada, describes one of these, set up inside an old tannery in the suburbs of Thessaloniki, as “absolutely filthy. They didn't even sweep the floor before they set up tents. There's scrap metal and debris all around. There's only one tap of (theoretically) drinkable water for 800 people. And this is a good one.”


    The more fortunate are those spread through Athens in subsidised rentals and small communities in disused buildings. Not only are they closer to donors, volunteers and charities, but they have the best prospects for some degree of integration, especially as civil society organisations in the capital are starting to launch programmes with that aim in mind. Melissa, an organisation for migrant women in Athens, has developed a crash course in Greek with linguists at the University of the Aegean.


    “Its utilitarian Greek,” says Nadina Christopoulou, Melissa’s founder. “We have done focus groups to discover what situational vocabulary is most useful, such as going to a hospital, dealing with children, paying bills… We’d like the seasoned migrants to be the connecting tissue between the refugees and society.” 


    Melissa is also planning trips to markets and museums, so the refugees can practise using their Greek.


    “I think it’s very important for these people to emerge from the camps and start mixing with local society… The key is to forge a path to income-generating activity, where they will be agents of their own learning, not just passive recipients.”



    Refugees in Greece take first steps towards self-reliance
  • Greek asylum system reaches breaking point

    As Greece prepares to deport an initial 500 migrants and refugees on Monday under a controversial agreement between the EU and Turkey, senior Greek officials say the pressure to process applications quickly has become too great, at the expense of legal and ethical standards.

    “Insufferable pressure is being put on us to reduce our standards and minimise the guarantees of the asylum process,” Maria Stavropoulou, who heads the Greek Asylum Service, told IRIN. “[We’re asked] to change our laws, to change our standards to the lowest possible under the EU directive [on asylum procedures].”

    Under the terms of the 18 March agreement, Greece must screen all new arrivals from Turkey as quickly as possible and return those deemed not in need of international protection on the basis that Turkey is a “safe third country” or “first country of asylum” where they were already protected.

    Most of the pressure, according to Stavropoulou, is coming from “countries that are very invested in the deal with Turkey working.” Germany, which received more than one million asylum seekers last year, took a leading role in negotiations with Turkey during a tense two-day summit earlier this month.

    In addition to having to screen and return new arrivals, Greece is also dealing with high numbers of asylum applications from the more than 50,000 refugees and migrants who were already trapped inside Greece before the agreement with Turkey came into effect. An overland route through the western Balkans to Germany has been closed for a month and many of those who cannot afford to pay smugglers to find a new route to Western Europe are now applying for asylum in Greece. Authorities here expect to receive just under 3,000 applications in March, double the figure for January and three times last year’s monthly average. But even as the numbers have mounted, so has the pressure for speedy processing.

    The Greek Asylum Service has just hired three dozen new personnel, bringing its total staff to 295. But it says it will need at least double that number to handle the expected caseload in the wake of the EU-Turkey agreement. The European Commission has estimated that some 4,000 personnel are likely to be needed in Greece and is sending reinforcements.

    Many of those slated to join the effort are coastguard officers, but some 800 are asylum experts and interpreters from other member states and from the European Asylum Support Office, the EU’s coordinating body for asylum matters. The first 60 are to arrive in Greece on Sunday.

    “I believe the Greek system is well supported through this increase in staff – it can handle this workload,” said EASO spokesman Jean-Pierre Schembri, who added that much would depend on a speedy initial screening of new arrivals.

    “If you have many people arriving every day it makes sense that this process is short in order to be able to deal with the workflow,” he told IRIN. However, he insisted that, “it’s not a question of making a very, very quick [process] without taking the interests of the applicant into account.” 

    Short shrift

    Some asylum experts believe that the pressure for rapid screening will mean that vital information for determining asylum claims is overlooked.

    “It always takes time,” said Spyros Kouloheris, head of legal research at the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR), the country’s most respected legal aid NGO.

    “Someone who is traumatised will speak in fits and starts. They appear not to be telling the truth. We’ve lost a lot of cases because we didn’t have the time, the information, the culture, the experience, to understand that the more broken up the narrative, the more likely it is that there is a background of torture and abuse. This is how true refugees are lost. Do we really think that a Somali woman who has been raped will sit down and merrily rattle off her experiences?”

    Of additional concern is the fact that initial screenings are taking place in reception venues on Greek islands that, since 20 March, have been turned into closed detention centres. “A detained person simply doesn’t function… You don’t play with people’s freedom. It’s all the worse when they’ve been storm-tossed,” said Kouloheris.

    Final decisions on asylum applications rest with the Greek authorities, but officials are so swamped that they are coopting anyone else they can to help inform new arrivals of their right to seek asylum and how to go about it. “We depend on the UN or EASO, on NGOs and on the volunteers – anyone who can have a knowledge of the basics – to hand out our flyers and pass on our web page to people,” said Stavropoulou.

    GCR has been sending lawyers to the port of Piraeus to tell thousands of migrants and refugees camping out there after recently arriving from the islands about their options. “It’s not that they don’t know,” said Negia, a volunteer at the port. “It’s that having made all this effort, they can’t believe the borders are closed and they have such few options.”


    John Psaropoulos/IRIN
    A volunteer with the Greek Council for Refugees explains the options to refugees at Piraeus – asylum in Greece, relocation to Europe, or return to Turkey

    Hala and Fouad, a young couple from Iraq, have made up their minds not to apply for asylum in Greece. “We like Greece, and the Greeks have been very good, very kind,” said Hala. “But for my children’s sake, I do not want to stay here.” The family, who have already spent the past 40 days at Piraeus, have applied to be transferred to Sweden through the EU’s relocation scheme, but will have to wait another three weeks for an appointment to assess their case.

    So far, a September 2015 agreement by the EU to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy over two years has resulted in just under 900 being moved from Greece and a further 2,300 are at various stages in the process, according to Stavropoulou.

    For whom is Turkey safe?

    The most controversial aspect of the EU-Turkey agreement, however, is Turkey’s designation as a safe third country as a basis for rejecting asylum seekers in Greece.

    Turkey has ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention, but has not signed a 1967 Protocol extending refugee rights to non-Europeans, meaning that many of those in danger of deportation back to Turkey will have limited legal protection there. The agreement obliges Turkey to make legal changes, but Ankara has already indicated it has no intention of doing so. Greece is about to vote on legislative changes that will make it legal to deport people to Turkey.

    Rights groups have pointed out that Turkey has effectively closed its borders to Syrians fleeing the war and recently deported asylum seekers to Afghanistan and Iraq without granting them access to an asylum procedure.

    “There is a political dishonesty and evasion in Turkey’s designation as a safe third country, and this is also open to legal challenge,” said Andreas Takis, a law professor at the University of Thessaloniki who sits on the Greek Human Rights Committee.

    Takis predicts that the agreement will turn out to be unenforceable. “There isn’t a specific passage in the agreement one can point to and say, ‘this is where the Geneva Convention or the asylum procedure is being violated,’” he said. “Instead, everyone is rightly concerned that… it will violate it in the manner in which it is implemented.”

    Kouloheris agrees, and plans to challenge the deal in court. “I think there is a policy of hostility. Europe is putting up a wall. It doesn’t want these people. This treaty makes it clear.”


    Greek asylum system reaches breaking point
  • The Good Samaritans of Greece

    When Greece became the epicentre of Europe’s debt crisis after the global banking system imploded in 2008, local volunteer groups sprung up to help alleviate the suffering. Now, with a new crisis upon the country, similar networks are coming once again to the fore – only this time they are coming to the aid of helpless foreigners.

    Friday’s deal between the EU and Turkey means all new arrivals to Greece must be sent back to Turkey. However, it doesn’t cover the tens of thousands of refugees and migrants stranded in the country since the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and other nations along the Balkan route sealed their borders to all asylum seekers earlier this month.

    The government has put the number of stranded migrants at nearly 50,000, but the real figure is likely to be even higher as thousands are tucked away in private homes or in spontaneous shelters in petrol stations and parking lots.

    The army has opened disused military camps at a rate of two a week for the past month, but roughly 1,000 new arrivals a day have swamped official capacity to provide housing, food and healthcare.

    It is left to volunteer groups to step in and fill the gaps left by the state.

    “I try not to think about the long term, because a few years from now we might find ourselves in their position,” Ioanna Moraiti, an IT student in the agricultural town of Larissa in central Greece, tells IRIN. “It’s our obligation as Greeks to help, each according to his means.”  

    Moraiti is a volunteer with Prosfero (‘I offer’), a small grassroots organisation that is helping to distribute meals prepared by the Air Force to 1,000 refugees encamped next to an abandoned textile mill. The first 400 arrived by bus a fortnight ago; another 600 arrived over the weekend, having been evacuated from the island of Lesvos. Under the new EU-Turkey deal, Greece still has to evacuate some 5,500 migrants and refugees from its eastern islands.

    Another Larissa-based group, Energoi Polites (‘Active Citizens’), has mobilised its donor network on behalf of the refugees and now has a basement and a garage filled with clothing and blankets.  “We can’t handle the donations and we’re looking for [more] space,” says Kostas Kedras, a leader of the group.

    “We helped set up the tents people are staying in – putting wooden pallets and nylon sheeting under the tents to keep them dry, handing out clothes, blankets, sleeping bags and prams.”


    John Psaropoulos/IRIN
    Volunteers hand out sandwiches to refugees at the camp in Larissa

    Border closures

    The refugee crisis really hit home in Greece last autumn when only certain nationalities were allowed to proceed northwards. Previously, the vast majority of migrants who arrived on the Greek islands headed north as soon as possible after being transferred to the mainland by ferry. As the numbers of migrants and refugees accumulating at the border became unmanageable, police began holding back the buses at motorway service areas along the route.  

    “The police officer on duty called us and said there are 350 people on the motorway, 50 of them children,” remembers Ilias Tsolakidis, who founded O Topos Mou (‘My Place’) in the town of Katerini, in the shadow of Mount Olympus. “’I can’t bear to watch it any more. They’re crying, dropping at our feet and asking for food,’ said the officer.”

    Tsolakidis and his group immediately mustered what food they could and took it to the refugees. They have remained on alert ever since. When a busload of stranded refugees went thirsty earlier this year, O Topos Mou sourced a tonne of bottled water in just 45 minutes. “We have a network and send emails out to 36,000 people,” says Tsolakidis. “If just 500 people read it and 50 people respond, you’ve got a collection in half an hour.”  

    The ability of grassroots groups and volunteers to self-organise and distribute aid quickly and efficiently in their local areas has made them indispensable to government efforts to feed and shelter migrants and refugees in the weeks since the Western Balkan route has been sealed off.

    They have taken over food and clothing distribution in many official camps where government and international NGOs lack sufficient manpower. At the camp in Idomeni on Greece’s northern border, where 13,000 migrants and refugees are now staying, they are cleaning muddy tents and assigning them to new arrivals as well as flagging refugees in need of medical attention.

    Making a difference 

    The ability to mobilise local volunteer networks is what Tsolakidis refers to as a “fire hose”, always at the ready to extinguish a crisis before it grows out of control. “If we put out one fire and a second one starts we will try and deal with it also,” he tells IRIN. “But the burden is greater [than it was when we were helping just Greeks]. The effort has to be more fast-paced and intense. More people need to be mobilised.”  

    For thousands of refugees in Greece, the work of the volunteers has made a miserable situation slightly more bearable.  

    “Greeks are a great people… kind, and willing to help everybody,” Walid Jemu tells IRIN.

    Jemu fled Syria a month ago with his pregnant wife and two small children after his seven-year-old nephew was killed by a bomb while playing in front of his home in Aleppo.

    Jemu is grateful simply to be allowed to live in a tent on the concrete pavement outside a petrol station. About 1,000 others live in tents here, about 20 kilometres from the northern Greek border.


    John Psaropoulos/IRIN
    An unofficial camp for migrants and refugees outside a petrol station 20km from Greece's northern border

    “The [Greek] government didn’t give me money or anything like that, but they allowed us to come here and stay,” says Jemu. “They are working with the people – the opposite of [other governments in] Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia or Macedonia.”  

    People from the surrounding villages bring food to the petrol station. A local family even invited Jemu to spend a week in their house “and have warmth for the children”. He refused because he is still hopeful that the border will re-open and he will be allowed to continue on to Germany.  

    Branching out

    But Tsolakidis does not share Jemu’s optimism. He believes that it’s unlikely that the borders north will re-open any time soon. Despite the deal with Turkey, he reckons the numbers of migrants and refugees stranded in Greece will only continue to climb. And he has little faith in the EU scheme that was supposed to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers from Italy and Greece to other member states over two years. It has only moved 568 refugees from Greece so far.

    Tsolakidis worries that donations from Greeks will eventually dry up and that help will need to come from further afield. “I believe that the people who now offer freely from their surplus will soon be unable to do so.”

    He has already launched successful appeals for medical supplies in France and Germany, distributing the donated medicines to Greek hospitals treating refugees. In the process, O Topos Mou is transforming itself from an organisation that distributes humanitarian aid locally to a group that is sourcing aid internationally to distribute nationally.

    “We’ve opened a door and walked into a different room in our history,” says Tsolakidis. “Some people don’t want to walk in. They think things will change while they’re hovering in the doorway. But time is pressing… Let’s go in while there’s space and time to plan something.”



    The Good Samaritans of Greece
    How volunteer networks have emerged to help stranded refugees
  • The Aegean’s nameless dead

    “The girl was lying across the beach, her face down in the pebbles,” says municipal plumber Pantelis Markakis as we walk to the water’s edge. “What shocked me was when I saw that her hands were turned like this and white like stone,” he says, turning his palms upwards and gnarling his fingers. “I asked a coastguard officer if she was wearing gloves.”

    The unidentified 10- or 11-year-old was one of two bodies that washed up on the Greek island of Ikaria in the eastern Aegean on 19 December. The other was that of a man in his 20s.

    Subsequent storms have since reclaimed the dozen-odd life jackets that washed up on the beach at Iero that day; but it is still littered with packets of Amoxipen, Spandoverin and Diclopinda – antibiotics, painkillers and anti-nausea medicine that were among the refugees’ possessions. Turkish fruit juice boxes also litter the shore along with a pair of hotel slippers from the Istanbul Holiday Inn, encrusted with barbed seed pods. 


    Shoe on beach
    John Psaropoulos/IRIN
    The beach at Iero is littered with refugees' possessions

    Ikaria, and the sea around it, are named after the mythical hero, Ikaros, who plummeted to a watery grave after flying too close to the sun. He and his father, Daidalos, had constructed wings out of birds’ feathers held together by wax – a flimsiness born of desperation not unlike that of today’s refugees, who attempt to cross the Aegean in unseaworthy vessels wearing useless life vests.

    The island sits at a relatively isolated longitude exposed to the north winds that sweep down from the Dardanelles to Crete. This means that it acts as a net for the bodies and wreckage of shipwrecked refugees and migrants that shoot past the islands of Samos and Chios to the north and east. For migrants to find themselves on Ikaria means that they have lost their way, and they rarely arrive here alive.


    John Psaropoulos/IRIN
    Ikaria's rocky, jagged coastline is full of coves where bodies, or parts of bodies, can become lodged, impossible to see or recover

    More bodies have surfaced recently – some in an advanced state of decay. On 5 January, a young woman was found bobbing in the shallows of the north shore, 10 kilometres from Iero.  

    “She was completely naked,” remembers Kalliopi Katte, the doctor who lifted her onto a stretcher. “It was an awful sight because although she had her arms and legs, her face was missing. There was no skin or flesh. It was just a skull.” The woman’s belly was bloated, not from pregnancy, but from the gases emanating from her decomposing bowels. Katte believes she had been at the bottom of the sea for about two weeks.  

    Like the other bodies, it too had to be cut loose from a life vest that failed to save the woman’s life.  

    The patch of coast where the body was found is so remote. Katte and three firemen had to carry the body up a mountainside for an hour to reach the nearest road. 

    “The bodies are always found after strong northern winds because they’ve sunk to the bottom of the sea and the weather brings them up against the rock,” says Katte. “The bodies have been eaten by fish – they’re not just decomposing.”  


    John Psaropoulos/IRIN
    Kalliopi Katte recalls helping firemen recover a badly decomposed body found in the shallows of Ikaria's north shore

    Some 3,771 refugees were recorded as dead or missing in the Mediterranean last year. In Greek and Turkish waters alone, 320 people have drowned or gone missing just since the beginning of the year, according to the International Organization for Migration. Yet these figures do not tell the whole story.  

    Even in death there are degrees of misfortune. Some dead are recovered, identified, and shipped home for burial. Some are listed as missing but never found. Some are found but remain unidentified; and there are those who are never sought and never found, because no witnesses survived their shipwreck, and no bodies washed up. The sea has claimed them without a trace, so they form an unknown statistic.  

    “Often in the straits we find life vests and other objects from shipwrecks in the nets,” says fisherman Nikos Avayannis. “I once found a backpack. We took it on board and searched for a survivor but didn’t find one. We delivered it to the authorities. It had clothes in it, some headphones from a cell phone and some documents.”  

    The rumour that fish are now eating dead refugees has turned many of Avayannis’ customers away.

    Avayannis believes that the owner of the backpack may have ended up part of that ghostly statistic of unclaimed, undiscovered dead. “If a body hasn’t been hit by a propeller and chopped to pieces, it floats and gets thrown out onto shore. If the current takes a body onto jagged rocks with caves, it’s possible that it will never be found.”  


    John Psaropoulos/IRIN
    Fisherman Nikos Avayannis (centre) salts sardines for bait. "If the current takes a body onto jagged rocks with caves, it’s possible that it will never be found,” he says.

    The rumour that fish are now eating dead refugees has turned many of Avayannis’ customers away. “A few days ago, as I was selling fish, two or three of my customers said, ‘as long as people are drowning we are going to abstain from fish.’”  

    Greek law demands an autopsy after every non-natural death. After that, the fate of a body depends on whether surviving relatives are available to identify it. “When relatives decide to bury them in Greece, it is usually done in the Muslim cemeteries on Rhodes and Kos. If they are Christians, they can be buried in one of the local cemeteries,” says Erasmia Roumana of the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. “The other choice is repatriation of the body, usually taken by Iraqi nationals.” For Syrians and Afghans, repatriating the bodies of family members to their war-torn countries is not an option.

    When bodies are found, they are taken to Ikaria’s hospital. There, doctors pronounce death and take hair and tissue samples, which are preserved in brine. The entire package of paperwork and DNA evidence is then forwarded to the nearest district attorney – in this case on the island of Samos.  

    Surgeon John Tripoulas is still haunted by the experience of examining the body of an eight- to 10-year-old girl who had been in the sea for weeks, and was so close to disintegrating, rescue workers had to lift her up by her clothes. Her flesh was “saponified” he said – a term meaning it had literally developed a soap-like consistency.

    “I’ll never forget what she was wearing,” says Tripoulas. “Pink sweatpants with a Mickey Mouse patch; white boots and a pink overcoat. Her facial features were not visible – [they] had been lost to the sea.”  

    This information, included on the death certificate, is perhaps all that is known about the girl; but even this may prove vital in one day informing her family of her ultimate fate.  

    “We use anything we can for recognition, such as clothing or jewellery or a manicure,” says Katte, the doctor who recalled helping to retrieve the young woman’s body on 5 January.

    The only identifying objects on her faceless corpse had been five carved gold bracelets, now buried with her in a mass grave at Ikaria’s cemetery.


    A mass grave for refugees lies under unmarked, freshly turned earth, beside the graves of the island's residents


    The Aegean’s nameless dead

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