(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • The Eastern Aegean is becoming Europe’s Nauru

    A 66-old Iraqi Kurdish woman and her six-year old grandson were burnt to death on Thursday night when a cooking gas canister exploded in their tent at Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesvos. The boy’s mother and his four-year-old brother, who were in the next tent, suffered severe burns. The fire was quickly put out, but as the camp was evacuated, some of the refugees started fires in their wake that caused widespread destruction.

    As the winter cold begins to bite and many of the 16,000 migrants and refugees stranded on the Greek islands continue to be housed in temporary shelters, more fires are inevitable. Some will be the result of the migrants trying to keep warm or cook in their tents. Others will be set deliberately in a desperate act of protest.

    Fires at Moria, usually the result of riots, have become frequent since the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal in March. The agreement envisaged that migrants arriving to the Greek islands would be briefly detained until they could be processed and returned to Turkey, given asylum in Greece, or relocated elsewhere in Europe. In reality, few migrants have left Lesvos. Most are still waiting for their asylum claims to be processed, even as small numbers continue to arrive.  

    The capacity of Moria is 2,000 people, but the camp now has around 4,500 residents. Other facilities on the island host another 1,500. Several other Aegean islands are experiencing similar levels of overcrowding and an increasingly tense atmosphere. Violent clashes between refugees and locals also broke out recently on Chios.

    Several refugees I spoke to on Thursday night after the deadly fire asked me the same question: “Will this help open the borders?” But the European policies that keep them on the islands are not determined by humanitarian considerations. They are driven by a desire to keep the migrants as far from the centre of Europe as possible. And Lesvos is at one of the furthest corners of Europe.


    Fotini Rantsiou/IRIN
    The morning after the fire at Moria camp, refugees sift through the charred remains of their belongings

    Meanwhile, local residents feel increasingly threatened. Cases of petty theft and other crimes have risen in line with the numbers of asylum seekers. On Lesvos, refugees now make up more than 20 percent of people in Mytilene, the capital city where the camps are located. In Chios town, they represent 13 percent of the population, on Samos 38 percent.

    The real culprit?

    The Greek Asylum Service has been wrongly blamed for the overcrowding. But it has been processing cases at a rate no slower than other European countries. According to its director, the service has tripled in size since its inception in 2013 and is handling six times more asylum applications in 2016 than previously. Little support from other European countries has been forthcoming. Member states sent only 35 of the 400 experts requested by the European Asylum Support Office.

    A lack of funding is also not the problem. The EU, through its department of home affairs and migration, has committed a total of €248 million to the government over the past year (through long-term and emergency contributions) and another €175 million to humanitarian partners, including the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration, and various NGOs. Since April 2016, another €198 million has been channelled through the European Commission's emergency aid department, ECHO.

    All of these funds are available to improve living conditions, both on the islands and for some 46,000 refugees stranded at various camps on the mainland. Better coordination and trust between the government and humanitarian partners would greatly help, but the real issue keeping refugees on the islands isn’t money or bureaucracy. It’s a lack of solidarity from the other EU member states that over the past year have closed their borders and backtracked on commitments to relocate asylum seekers from Greece and Italy. Instead, Greece – where a total of 62,000 migrants and refugees are now stranded – has been left to deal with the consequences of bad decisions made in Brussels.

    Even as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan openly threatens to end Turkey’s migration deal with the EU, the Greek government is keeping it alive by insisting that refugees must remain on the islands. The morning after the deaths at Moria, the minister for migration reiterated in parliament that no transfers to the mainland would take place, despite repeated requests by the islands’ mayors.

    Talking to government officials, humanitarian actors and local residents, whether in Lesvos, Chios, Athens or Thessaloniki, one thing is clear: urgent advocacy is needed, in Brussels and in EU member state capitals, to overturn EU policies that are keeping people hostage in Greece – a country that because of an accident of geography has become a frontline state for Europe’s refugee “crisis”, and at one of the most difficult economic times in its post-war history.

    Australia has been roundly and rightly condemned for its policy of processing asylum seekers at remote offshore detention centres like the one on the tiny island nation of Nauru. Allowing the Greek islands to become Europe’s Nauru is an inhumane solution that should put us to shame as European citizens.

    (TOP PHOTO: At the peak of last year's arrivals to Lesvos, non-Syrians waited up to five days to register at Moria Camp but were then free to travel onwards to the Greek mainland and Western Europe. Jodi Hilton/IRIN)


    The Eastern Aegean is becoming Europe’s Nauru
  • 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
  • Young, alone, abused

    Sixteen-year-old Hamza, an Afghan refugee, can't shake the memory of another teenager's bloody, dying body on the ground metres from his tent. The victim, also an Afghan refugee aged 16, suffered severe stab wounds and head injuries in a massive brawl.

    Fights are a daily occurrence at Elliniko, a sprawling camp complex where 3,200 migrants and refugees, mostly Afghans, shelter in the Greek capital's crumbling former airport and moribund 2004 Olympic venues. It is an overcrowded, squalid space plagued by a lack of adequate food and medical services.

    The teen, thought to be staying at Elliniko with relatives, died in a nearby hospital. According to Greek police, three Afghans who had been living in the camp are under investigation for his murder.

    "In my country, I saw dead people in the streets," Hamza told IRIN. The young Afghan hadn’t thought that a new life in Europe would bring him more of the same.

    In January, Hamza and his uncle had set out for Europe from Kunduz, the northern city briefly overtaken by Taliban insurgents in October.

    The pair parted ways in Greece after they encountered a closed northern border. Hamza's uncle paid a smuggler to continue onward, but Hamza’s funds were running low and he had no choice but to stay put. He owns one set of clothes, sleeps on a tattered blanket, and usually eats just once daily.

    Alone at Elliniko, Hamza is an "unaccompanied minor", the legal term for those under 18 who have crossed borders without their parents or caregivers. They tend to be males aged 14 to 17, often sent to Europe by their parents as beacons of hope for the family from conflict-torn nations like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and Eritrea.

    Detentions and beatings

    Human rights groups and Greece's own health agency have declared conditions at many Greek refugee camps unfit for humans. They're especially improper for children and teens.

    Their status as minors is supposed to entitle them to special international protections and rights. But in Greece, a safe haven is often nowhere to be found.

    Months after braving dangerous voyages by land and sea to reach Europe, they still face threats more akin to warzones. A Human Rights Watch report last week showed that Greek authorities regularly detain unaccompanied, asylum-seeking children in police cells, often for weeks and months. Fifty-six were in police custody as of last weekend.

    In Greece, keeping unaccompanied minors in police stations is meant as a temporary, protective measure until a bed can be found within the chronically overstretched shelter network. But the children in HRW's report described the conditions as "unsanitary, overcrowded cells, including dirty blankets and bugs, and lack of access to information or services such as counselling and legal aid." Some had been held longer than 45 days, the legal maximum.

    On the Greek islands, hundreds are kept in large detention centres where they cannot come and go freely, and there are accounts of them being beaten by police. A group of Greek lawyers has filed a case with the European Court of Human rights on behalf of four Afghan unaccompanied minors, including one in police detention.

    How big is the problem?

    Almost 90,000 unaccompanied minors applied for asylum across the EU last year, according to Eurostat – part of the wave of some one million souls to reach the continent by sea.

    Slightly more than half of unaccompanied minor applicants were Afghan. Sweden received the largest share with 40 percent, followed by Germany with 16 percent. Just 420 applied in Greece, traditionally a transit country to northern Europe.

    But the near-total shutdown of the Western Balkans migration route changed everything. Four months on, Greece is just beginning to take stock of the unaccompanied minors among the 57,000 migrants and refugees stranded within its borders.

    “Pre-registration", a joint programme by the Greek Asylum Service and the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, went camp by camp this summer to get everyone in line for an asylum appointment. It uncovered at least 690 unaccompanied minors previously unknown to the government and living among the general refugee and migrant populations.

    At present, Greece counts more than 2,000 and only has beds in permanent, long-term shelters for 407, according to the National Centre for Social Solidarity (EKKA), the government agency responsible. The wait is at least three months.

    "This is the longest waiting list we've ever had, by far, and it's gone up by 30 percent because of the pre-registration procedure," Christos Hombas, who manages accommodation requests for EKKA, told IRIN. "We are expecting it to go up further."

    Greece is scrambling to care for the hundreds of unaccompanied youths no longer able to continue their onward journeys so easily. The country's protracted financial crisis has crippled its ability to scale up.

    International aid groups such as UNHCR and Save the Children, along with Greek NGOs Praksis, ARSIS, and Metadrasi, have stepped in to provide temporary "transit shelters" for some 270 minors until they can be placed in a more permanent setting. Another 360 spaces are in the pipeline, including Greece's first foster care programme, which has placed 12 children with families so far. Five open camps on the Greek mainland contain 'safe spaces' for minors. Elliniko, slated to be cleared, is not one of them.

    The next phase will be planning for unaccompanied youths' long-term care, as legal options to leave the country are scarce. Only 29 unaccompanied minors have so far been relocated to other EU member states as part of the EU's official relocation mechanism. Afghans and Iraqis are excluded from the programme.

    The repercussions

    With support still lagging, and without enough access to specialised care in Greece's open camps or the streets, unaccompanied minors suffer greatly in the meantime.

    Many experience symptoms of psychological trauma from graphic violence they witnessed back home or during their voyages to Europe. Their current living situations – often overcrowded, unsanitary, and unsafe – do not allow for them to start healing, let alone integrate into a country that could become their new home.  

    "There's this idea that you can come to Europe and seek refuge, that you can finally take a sigh (of relief)," Shala Gafary, an American lawyer of Afghan descent who came to Greece as a volunteer, told IRIN. "They have not sighed yet. So all of this trauma is not only there, it's bottling up and pressurising."

    Their vulnerabilities as youths living alone open them up to threats to their personal safety. Some are being sucked into a seedy underworld of child prostitution, performing sex acts in Pedion tou Areos park in Athens for as little as five euros, according to one recent report.

    Formal camps are not much safer. Social workers with the Greek office of Médecins du Monde, as well as ARSIS, told IRIN they had received several reports of physical or sexual abuse among young refugees in camps throughout Greece.

    "They come to us and say they're afraid to go back to their camps because someone is abusing or harassing them," said Nancy Retinioti, who heads MDM's social work department in Athens.

    Often, the victims are reluctant to share details due to a deep sense of shame. Some attacks are fuelled by alcohol or drug use, which doctors and social workers report is on the rise in both formal and informal refugee shelters. The most common drugs are marijuana or heroin, Retinioti said. Many picked up the habit since arriving in Greece.

    "The thing is that in these camps there is no recreation and no operational structure," Retinioti told IRIN. "There are no rules. People come and go. No one knows what is prohibited or allowed."

    Anywhere else will do

    For many unaccompanied teens, help likely won't come fast enough. Many will turn 18 before the Greek state gets to them, meaning they'll lose their status as minors and any special rights that came with it. This includes the right to shelter in a safe, protective environment as well as a right to family reunion with any immediate family members residing in the EU, via the Dublin III Regulation.

    This is the danger for Abbas Ali Nazaree, a 17-year-old living out of a tent in Elliniko's parking lot. He will turn 18 in five months. In Afghanistan, his older brother had worked as a cook for a US contractor on Kandahar airfield. Taliban fighters then threatened him due to his affiliation with the Americans. Eighteen months ago, Abbas said, his brother reached Austria. But Abbas, who set out seven months ago, after the Taliban threatened him too, saw his own trip cut short by the border closures.

    "I lost my phone, so I lost my number," Abbas said. He is not sure how the Greek authorities will notify him once it's time for his asylum interview – or if a shelter bed becomes available.

    EKKA's Hombas admitted that on his 1,400-strong accommodation waiting list were some 400 like Abbas: youths with whom, for whatever reason, the state has lost contact.

    "A lot of them are totally homeless," Hombas said. "They could be in unofficial camps or living in basements. Maybe they have fled Greece."

    Not every child has a phone, and those who do sometimes run out of money to buy new SIM cards, so often there is no way for EKKA to follow up on initial requests for shelter.

    Many unaccompanied minors end up taking matters into their own hands. Greece's shelters see high rates of runaways. Some are turning to Balkan smugglers, a lucrative business in the wake of tighter European borders. Others are turning to old smuggling routes out of western Greek ports, where refugees and migrants hide under lorries bound for Italy by ferry (A second Human Rights Watch report last week showed that Italy is illegally returning migrant children to Greece).

    "Here, there is no hope. No one cares about us. I see it clearly."

    Hamza, however, just wants to go home, and has sought out so-called voluntary return programmes.

    "They told me because I'm a minor, they can't let me go back because I have special rights in Europe," Hamza explained, with no trace of irony in his voice.

    Back in Kunduz, Hamza's father is trying to gather a few hundred euros to smuggle his son back to Afghanistan. At least there, despite the constant threat of violence, he can be with his family.

    "Here, there is no hope," Hamza said. "No one cares about us. I see it clearly."

    (TOP PHOTO: Migrant children play in the port of Piraeus in Athens, where many arrive from the Greek islands having crossed the Aegean. Credit: Georgiev/UNICEF)


    Unaccompanied minors wish they’d never come to Greece
    Young, alone, abused
  • Last boat from Lesvos

    Every evening in Mytilene, capital of the Greek island of Lesvos, dozens of young Arab and African men gather at the base of a statue modelled, fittingly, after America’s Statue of Liberty. It overlooks the port, offering a good view of the entry gates, the parking lot, passengers emerging from taxis, and trucks loading shipping containers onto the large ferry that leaves for Athens at 8pm.  


    The people observing this scene are asylum seekers, mostly from the nearby Moria detention centre. They watch as police officers check boarding papers and look inside shipping containers. As everyone here knows, especially the police, sometimes the papers are fake and sometimes the containers have people hiding inside them.


    “What do you think?” says an Iraqi man, briefly taking his eyes off a truck where he says eight people are hidden. “Maybe I try?”


    He is one of many asylum seekers on the Greek islands who have lost faith in the legal process after months of indefinite detention with little access to information – a consequence of the controversial EU-Turkey deal that went into effect in late March and has largely succeeded in cutting off sea crossings from Turkey, the main route last year into Europe.


    The deal recognised Turkey as a safe country that migrants and asylum seekers could be returned to after an expedited screening process. But with the Greek Asylum Service overwhelmed and understaffed, and disagreement over the legality of Turkey’s safe-country designation, more than 8,600 people remain in limbo on the Greek islands. Many of them wait in detention centres like Moria, in squalid conditions that have deteriorated further in the summer heat. After 25 days, Greek law makes them eligible for release from detention, but they remain stuck on the islands.


    Syrians first


    Until recently, only Syrians were being processed. As weeks have turned to months, increasing numbers of non-Syrians have turned to smuggling themselves on board the ferry to Athens. According to conversations with dozens of asylum seekers on Lesvos, they can choose from two options: pay smugglers hundreds of euros for boarding papers or hide in one of the shipping containers loaded onto the ferry.


    Almost every day now, there is news of someone making it to Athens. “It is luck. If luck is good, they go,” says Faiz, a young Pakistani man on a recent evening by the port.


    Faiz is observing Ramadan but doesn’t plan on being around tonight to break his fast. He and his friend Shaqib, from Afghanistan, have decided to test their own luck. Tonight, if all goes well, they’ll be locked in a shipping container. “I eat in Athens,” says Faiz.


    Both he and Shaqib have hidden in containers before and know what to expect: “There is no oxygen,” says Shaqib, who has already been caught by the police four times.


    He and Faiz hope to find work in Athens, but they are among a minority of asylum seekers who want to stay in Greece. The country has a 24 percent unemployment rate and is struggling to deal with nearly 50,000 migrants and refugees who have been stranded on the mainland since early March when Balkan countries to the north sealed their borders. Most people who make it to Athens from the islands plan to continue north with the help of smugglers.


    Fake papers, or container?


    Smugglers are also doing good business on Lesvos. Asylum seekers IRIN spoke to reported that it was easy enough to buy the necessary documents – fake or doctored versions of papers given to Syrians who receive permission to go to Athens for their asylum interviews. Sometimes the same boarding pass is reused, passed from person to person with the help of a smuggler aboard the ferry.


    Hiding in a shipping container is free but much riskier and the chances of discovery are high. If successful, the stowaways face a 12-hour journey and no guarantee of when the container will be opened again or what they’ll face when it is.


    At about 6:30 pm, Faiz and Shaqib head for the port. The trucks will load their cargo onto the ferry soon and they must find their hiding places. Shaqib looks back while jogging off. “Tomorrow in Athens,” he says, raising his hands to the sky.


    Related Stories

    Unknown and exploited: Europe's new arrivals

    The EU-Turkey migration deal is dying. What's Plan B?

    Refugees in Greece take first steps towards self-reliance

    Not everyone trapped on the islands is able to make use of these illegal escape routes. Fake papers require money, while sneaking into containers mostly only works for single, able-bodied men. For women and children, the elderly, and the disabled and sick, there is nothing to do but wait.


    Authorities on the islands have almost finished processing Syrians and have moved on to other nationalities. But according to the Greek Asylum Service, more than 5,000 asylum claims are still pending. Although returns to Turkey have been taking place at a slower than expected rate (so far only about 500 individuals who did not register asylum claims have been returned according to the European Commission), non-Syrians in particular realise that their chances of being allowed to remain in Greece are slim. Smuggling themselves onto the ferry is viewed as a last-ditch attempt to get to Europe.


    Faiz and Shaqib return from the port after just half an hour. They had tried dodging behind the large rocks that line the port and then sprinting to a truck, but the police saw them.


    Three of their friends made it inside a container but within a few hours were having trouble breathing and coping with the suffocating heat. After two of them lost consciousness, the third called a friend in Moria for help and the Hellenic Coast Guard was alerted. When the ferry stopped at the nearby island of Chios, they were rescued and sent back to Lesvos.



    Last boat from Lesvos
    Asylum seeker stowaways try to reach the Greek mainland
  • Unknown and exploited: Europe’s new arrivals

    Migrant smuggling and trafficking routes through the western Balkans that went dormant during the latter half of 2015 and early 2016 when migrants and refugees were allowed to move freely between Greece and northern Europe have re-emerged in the wake of border closures imposed nearly four months ago.


    Official figures show a sharp decrease in border crossings, but an unknown number of refugees are moving through the Balkans uncounted. Humanitarian organisations warn that their renewed reliance on smugglers makes them more vulnerable and less likely to access protection and assistance.


    “Everything went underground with the border closures,” said Jelena Hrnjak, director of Serbian anti-human trafficking organisation ATINA. “Refugees are now in the same position as they were in 2014 and early 2015. The old routes that existed before the so-called humanitarian corridor are operational again.”


    The UN agency for refugees registered 217 new arrivals at Serbia’s southern borders with Macedonia and Bulgaria over four days earlier this month, but an estimated 300 refugees are thought to arrive in the country every day without being registered. One UNHCR official anonymously admitted that it is impossible to know exactly how many are being smuggled in undetected.


    On Wednesday, Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency, announced that a 36-hour crackdown on smugglers in the region, involving police and border management forces from 10 countries, had resulted in the arrest of 39 smugglers as well as the 580 migrants they were smuggling.


    Europol chief Rob Wainwright noted in a statement that more than 7,000 suspected migrant smugglers had been reported to Europol so far in 2016. “It is expected that the prices for smuggling will continue to rise and exploitation is expected to further increase both in countries of transit and arrival,” he said.


    No other route


    Manal, an 18-year-old Syrian travelling with her eight-month-old son, was among last week’s registered arrivals in Presevo, a small city on Serbia’s southern border with Macedonia.


    “I couldn’t bear to stay in Greece any longer,” Manal explained, describing the poor conditions at the camp where she had been living. “The water was so dirty. I was too sick to breastfeed my son. Even when I asked the doctors for clean water, they only gave [purification] tablets.”


    She was also desperate to rejoin her husband in Germany. He left Syria when Manal was four months pregnant and has only seen their son in photos. Family reunion procedures through the European Union’s Dublin Regulation can take as long as a year. After three months stranded in Greece, Manal decided to join a group of six other Syrians who each paid a smuggler 2,000 euros to get them to Germany. But the smuggler took them only as far as Macedonia before abandoning them in the forest with no food.


    Alberto Campi/IRIN
    An Afghan woman and her daughter rest in the border area known as "the jungle" between Greece and Macedonia

    For three days after he disappeared, the group continued as quickly as they could towards the Serbian border. They spent their days hiding in the forest, their nights walking. Progress was slow, especially after Manal sprained her ankle, but they eventually reached the Serbian border, where they were arrested and transferred to the registration centre in Presevo.


    After two days in the centre, the group was still waiting to receive documents that would allow them to travel legally through Serbia for 72 hours. Manal was not sure which country they would be entering next, but said she trusted the men in her group to find a solution – most likely another smuggler – once they reached Belgrade, the capital. 


    Big business


    A joint report published in May by Interpol and Europol estimated that migrant and refugee smuggling networks earned between $5 billion and $6 billion last year, with 90 percent of travel by migrants to the EU facilitated by members of a criminal network. It predicted a “further diversification of routes… as smugglers adapt their services to increased controls and find new ways into the EU”. It also noted that: “While a systematic link between migrant smuggling and terrorism is not proven, there is an increased risk that foreign terrorist fighters may use migratory flows to (re)enter the EU.”


    According to the International Organization for Migration, 127 people have been arrested in Greece since the beginning of the year on charges of smuggling, but Hrnjak said arresting individual smugglers, often migrants themselves, does little to deter well-established networks.


    “It’s a transnational criminal activity and needs to be regionally addressed,” she told IRIN. “The people who are arrested may be stopped from doing their base-level activity, but the main leaders of the operation remain in place.”


    IOM is working to collect data on smuggling and human trafficking in the Balkans so it can develop evidence-based responses and help victims. But the collection of accurate information is often hampered by refugees’ unwillingness to identify smugglers who they view as their only chance of reaching their final destination.

    Ripped off

    Saraf, a 25-year-old teacher from Afghanistan travelling with her husband and two brothers, said her group found a smuggler on the Greek island of Samos who offered to get them to Hungary for 2,500 euros each. She did not elaborate on how he got them off the island. Refugees are supposed to remain there until they go through an admissibility procedure and are either returned to Turkey or issued with an asylum card allowing them to travel to the mainland. A UNHCR spokesperson said the agency had heard anecdotal reports of people leaving the islands without authorisation, and that Greek police had stopped several people trying to board ferries with forged documents.

    Saraf’s smuggler accompanied them on the six-day trek through Macedonia, but abandoned them in Belgrade. Sitting in a park near the city’s main bus station, she was unsure how her family would reach Germany: their intended destination.

    Hungary erected a fence at its border with Serbia last September. The only legal way in now is via two “transit zones” where Hungarian authorities have been admitting just 30 asylum seekers a day. Hundreds of others are left waiting for weeks at informal camps that have sprung up on the Serbian side of the border. UNHCR has expressed concern regarding conditions at the camps and warned that the long waits are pushing refugees into the hands of smugglers.

    “I don’t understand how they can take advantage of us in this way,” said Saraf, about the smugglers. “But at the same time, they are our only option. We must continue, and the smugglers are our only choice.”


    According to the Interpol/Europol report, "the basic structure of migrant smuggling networks includes leaders who coordinate activities along a given route, organisers who manage activities locally through personal contacts, and opportunistic low-level facilitators who mostly assist organisers and may assist in recruitment activities.”


    Vulnerable children


    Unaccompanied minors are known to join smuggling networks in order to work off debts incurred during travel, usually by recruiting other refugees to be smuggled.


    “From our point of view, that kind of situation could very likely result in bondage once they reach the destination country — or perhaps sooner,” Hrnjak said.


    A 16-year-old Afghan boy who gave his name as “Ali” told IRIN that he paid a smuggler 1,500 euros to get him from Afghanistan to Turkey, where he spent four months working in a factory to raise money for the next leg of his journey. He then paid 4,500 euros to be smuggled through Bulgaria to Belgrade, where he is waiting for his family to gather the 1,400 euros he needs to pay a smuggler to get him into Hungary. Once there, he plans to make his way to Norway and apply for asylum.


    Alberto Campi/IRIN
    Asylum seekers from Nigeria just arrived in Belgrade with only a plastic bag and their clothes

    He said that last week, he and six companions, also unaccompanied minors from Afghanistan, tried to cross into Hungary without a smuggler, but they were caught and beaten by Hungarian border police.


    “Twelve policemen found us with dogs,” Ali said. “They kicked us and beat us with electric sticks until we ran away from the border.”


    The group returned to Belgrade, where one of his friends sought medical attention for a wound on the back of his head. Ali said he won’t try to cross the Hungarian border again until he can afford to pay a smuggler.


    “We need them to open the borders,” Ali said. “Until the borders are open, we have nowhere to go.”



    Unknown and exploited: Europe’s new arrivals
    Border closures have led to a migrant smuggling boom in the Balkans
  • 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
  • The EU-Turkey migration deal is dying. What’s Plan B?

    It’s been less than 11 weeks since the EU struck its controversial deal with Turkey to stem the flow of asylum seekers into Europe. The agreement was immediately under pressure on several fronts and now looks set to unravel completely, even before any mass returns come to pass.

    Two weeks ago, a committee on the Greek island of Lesvos upheld the appeal of a Syrian asylum seeker whose initial claim had been rejected and who was facing deportation to Turkey. This week, nine more appeals by Syrians were upheld. Many more such decisions are soon to be delivered, according to Pro Asyl, the German NGO whose lawyers represented the Syrians. So far, just one appeal case by a Syrian has been rejected.

    The appeal decisions are significant because they shatter the illusion that had given the accord its legal veneer – the principle that Turkey is “a safe third country”, one that even genuine asylum seekers can be returned to without running foul of international refugee law.

    Claims backlog

    On the basis of this bogus principle, around 200 migrants and refugees, mostly Syrians, have been told they can't have their asylum claim considered in Greece – the claims are officially inadmissible – and they'll be returned to Turkey. They have five days to lodge appeals with the Greek Asylum Service.

    To date, just over 400 people have been returned to Turkey under the agreement (while during April and May another 5,000 migrants and refugees arrived in Greece from Turkey). Tellingly, none of those returned were Syrians or other nationalities rejected on the basis of inadmissibility. Most were individuals who had not applied for asylum, or who withdrew their applications after deciding that even returning to Turkey was preferable to being detained in Greece.

    According to the Greek Asylum Service, 7,000 of around 8,500 migrants on the Greek islands are still waiting for initial interviews. Greece can only detain people in closed detention centres for 28 days, but even after they’re released they can’t leave the islands. The atmosphere is increasingly tense.

    “At these camps [on the islands], there’s not enough security; there are riots, hopelessness; there’s not enough to eat,” said Karl Kopp of Pro Asl. “People still have no clue what is happening and there aren’t enough lawyers available.”

    Legally unsound

    Dozens of “experts” from the European Asylum Support Office have been deployed to the islands to support overwhelmed Greek officials. According to a spokesperson with the office, EASO officials conduct interviews to assess the admissibility of applicants and then forward their opinions to the Greek Asylum Service, which is responsible for taking final decisions.

    Kopp said that while EASO officials couldn’t take final decisions, they do still influence their outcome by repeating the mantra that Turkey is a safe third country.

    But even before the ink was dry on the EU-Turkey agreement (it was finalised on 20 March), there was plenty of evidence that it wasn’t. In the past two months there have been numerous documented cases of Turkish guards shooting and killing Syrians attempting to cross the border. In addition, despite guarantees that those returned to Turkey would have access to asylum procedures there, returnees have instead been detained in remote camps with no access to lawyers

    Maria Stavropoulou, head of the Greek Asylum Service, told IRIN that more returns are scheduled in the coming days and weeks, but civil society groups like Pro Asyl and the Greek Council for Refugees have vowed to go through the courts to try to suspend removals. In the case of the one Syrian man whose appeal was rejected on Thursday, Kopp said his organisation has applied to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to prevent his deportation. If successful, the case could set another deal-breaking precedent.

    Political fallout

    While it may take months for European courts to expose legal flaws in the EU-Turkey agreement, the deal could die a much quicker death if Turkey decides to pull out.

    In early May, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sacked his prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, who had helped negotiate the deal with the EU. In recent weeks, Erdoğan has repeatedly expressed his displeasure at the slow pace of a process to grant Turkish citizens visa-free access to Europe – a key incentive for Turkey’s cooperation on migration. The target date for the visa waiver was 1 June, but “technical talks” have just begun and Ankara must still comply with a list of 72 requirements, including reforms of its anti-terror legislation, which allows it to prosecute academics and journalists. Erdoğan has already made it clear that he is not willing to make the necessary reforms. He has also complained that the EU is yet to hand over three billion euros to help support Syrians refugees: another component of the agreement.

    In yet another potential blow to the deal, the German parliament on Thursday voted to recognise the 1915 massacre of 1.5 million Armenians by Turkish-Ottoman forces as genocide. Turkey responded by quickly recalling its ambassador. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was a key architect of the deal with Turkey and is likely to be the biggest political loser if it fails and large-scale refugee movements to Europe resume this summer. In 2015, Germany received by far the largest share of asylum seekers who crossed the Aegean from Turkey.

    For now, the prospect of detention in Greece, combined with the border closures in the Balkans that preceded the EU-Turkey deal, have been enough to deter all but the most desperate from attempting the Aegean route. But more than 10,000 migrants arrived by boat to Italy in the last week of May and Europe’s so-called refugee crisis is far from over. Policymakers are in urgent need of a Plan B.


    The EU-Turkey migration deal is dying. What’s Plan B?
  • The long goodbye

    Yusra al-Khatib is scrolling through photos of her husband, Bassam Mughrabi, on her smartphone.

    The couple have lived apart for three years, ever since Mughrabi fled their war-torn hometown of Yabroud, Syria, and made his way to Germany. It used to be a proper partnership. He supported their six children by working in construction, while she took care of their home. Now, their relationship has been reduced to a flurry of text messages, selfies and voice recordings on WhatsApp, Viber, and Facebook Messenger.

    Al-Khatib, who is 40, says she tried to join Mughrabi in Europe via family reunification procedures. After being told by the German embassy in Beirut that she would have to wait until 2017 for a visa interview, she decided to take matters into her own hands. In February, she and four of her children, aged seven to 20 – along with her sister-in-law, Khadeja, and her five children – paid smugglers a total of 6,000 euros to cross the Aegean Sea in the hope of reaching their husbands.

    Their trip was cut short by the shutdown of the 'Balkan Route' to northern Europe, which trapped some 54,000 refugees and migrants in Greece. Now their main roadblock is bureaucratic: a Greek asylum system so overwhelmed that it's nearly impossible to get an appointment and avenues for family reunion within Europe that are painfully slow.

    For these two women – and thousands of other families separated by Europe’s border closures – they finally reside on the same continent as their loved ones, but feel no closer to actually being with them.

    "He is trying to pull us to him and we can't get there. I would do anything to be with him again," said al-Khatib, who spent five weeks shivering in a small plastic tent with her children at Idomeni, a squalid, makeshift refugee camp at the Greek-Macedonian border. After giving up hope that the border would reopen, they moved to Veria, an official camp 70 kilometres from the city of Thessaloniki with much better living conditions.

    Asked how many of the camp's 400 residents were women and children trying to join husbands and fathers elsewhere in Europe, al-Khatib lost count at 18 families. 

    Restrictive policies deter reunification

    Last year, the vast majority of the one million asylum seekers to reach Europe by boat were men, many of them young, single and travelling alone. By February, nearly 60 percent of those risking their lives at sea were women and children, according to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR.           

    One reason for the changing demographics, aid agencies say, is the lack of safe, legal ways for people trapped in warzones or living as refugees in the Middle East to join family members already in the European Union.

    Although EU legislation recognises a refugee’s right to be reunited with their immediate family, a number of member states are making it extremely difficult to realise, with increasingly restrictive eligibility criteria and onerous bureaucratic requirements.

    In recent months, many EU member states have targeted family reunification as part of broader policy efforts to tighten border controls and deter prospective asylum seekers.

    Austria passed the most restrictive changes in April. In addition to allowing police to turn away asylum seekers at the border, new legislation increases the waiting period for family reunification to three years for holders of subsidiary protection, a type of protection for people who do not fit the criteria for refugee status but cannot be sent back to their countries of origin.

    In Germany, those with subsidiary protection must now wait two years before they can apply for family reunification, while recent amendments to Sweden’s asylum law mean that subsidiary protection holders have no right to apply for it at all. Other countries, such as Finland, are introducing income requirements for refugees seeking to bring family members to the country.

    Playing the European lottery

    Those like Yusra and Khadeja al-Khatib, who have made it into the EU but are stuck in Greece, have two main legal options to rejoin family members elsewhere. First, they must apply for family reunion under the Dublin Regulation, which decides which country is responsible for processing an individual’s asylum claim. If that fails, they can try to reunite via the EU's official relocation scheme, which takes family ties into account when determining which member state to transfer asylum seekers to.

    Both procedures are excruciatingly slow. Only 909 of a promised 66,400 people have been moved from Greece to other EU countries under the relocation scheme since last September, and only certain nationalities with high rates of refugee recognition qualify.

    According to Daphné Bouteillet-Paquet, a senior legal officer with the European Council on Refugees and Exiles: “People often have to wait a good year before enjoying family unity under Dublin… it is quicker and more efficient to turn to the services of smugglers."

    As with family reunification from outside Europe, most member states only allow reunion under Dublin for immediate family -- typically spouses and children under 18 years old. Adult children and families formed in transit countries like Turkey are usually excluded. This means that Yusra al-Khatib's 20-year-old daughter won’t qualify to join the rest of family in Germany, and another recently engaged young woman in Veria camp may not be able to reunite with her fiancé.

    The documentation requirements for Dublin requests also pose a major hurdle for families who fled their homes without crucial paperwork, such as marriage licenses and birth certificates. Insufficient documentation is often grounds for denial.

    "We have seen families being torn apart, because if they cannot prove the family link, they could be assigned to different member states under Dublin," Bouteillet-Paquet said.

    The broken system

    A lack of legal help means that women like Yusra and Khadeja al-Khatib are often left to navigate the complex family reunification process on their own.

    But before they can even begin the process, they must secure an asylum interview, something that has proved impossible for many. Since late March, the Greek Asylum Service has only allowed people to make appointments for their asylum interviews via Skype. But many of the refugees are staying in camps with no WiFi access and spotty cellphone service. Even those with internet access complain that they can’t get through on the Skype number. In Veria last week, almost no one had an appointment yet.

    Beginning in late May, the Greek Asylum Service says it will start visiting camps throughout the mainland to register asylum claims. Through this "pre-registration exercise", which is supported by UNHCR and the European Asylum Support Office, asylum seekers will receive an appointment for an interview along with an international protection card, which will give them access to public health services and the school system.

    The process is expected to take two months, with all asylum interviews to take place by the end of the year. To meet this goal, the Greek Asylum Service will need to conduct more than 6,000 interviews per month – a tall order for an agency that processed just 1,100 asylum claims a month in early 2015.

    The women at Veria feel no closer to having a clear timeline for when their families will be whole again.


    Tania Karas/IRIN
    Abeer Hammood and her two children are trying to join Abeer's husband in Germany

    "It's disappointing and lonely, even with the children," said Abeer Hammood, a Syrian mother in the camp whose husband is also in Germany. "It's like I'm living, but without my soul."

    In a fit of tears one night, her husband said he would cancel his asylum application in Germany and come to Greece to be with her. Despite how much she misses him, Hammood convinced him not to.

    Last month, soon after being granted refugee status in Germany, Yusra al-Khatib's husband came to visit his family on a special refugee passport. He flew to Thessaloniki, then took a bus to the camp. Yusra waited for him at the camp gate.

    For a few short days, it felt almost like a vacation. "But I hated him seeing us here, living like this," she said.

    In what seemed like the blink of an eye, he was back in Germany and the waiting game began again.



    The long goodbye
    How European policies are dividing refugee families
  • Welcome to the City Plaza: Greece’s refugee hotel

    The new residents of the City Plaza Hotel in downtown Athens can check out any time they like but, for now at least, they cannot leave Greece.

    While borders across the Balkans slammed shut in March, trapping more than 54,000 migrants and refugees in Greece, a network of radical Greek academics, activists and citizens were busy seizing this long-abandoned hotel to create a co-operative refuge for hundreds of families, many of them women and children.

    Greece’s stranded refugees are scattered far and wide, from the isolated slopes of Mount Olympus near Macedonia, to dusty old military barracks by the Ionian Sea, to wind-buffeted tents at the port of Piraeus in the south. More than 8,200 are on the Aegean islands, most of them locked in squalid detention centres as per the terms of the EU-Turkey deal that will see the majority eventually deported back to Turkey, and an uncertain fate.

    By contrast, City Plaza, an off-white seven-storey building with jutting balconies, provides clean, en suite rooms for up to 400 refugees with regular meals and activities for children. After opening in April, it’s almost full.

    As it becomes increasingly clear that their guests won’t be leaving anytime soon, the founders of the upmarket squat are making efforts to integrate the refugees into Greek society – helping the fathers find jobs and the children to enter public schools.

    One of the occupiers, journalist Yiannis Andrulidakis, has deeper connections than most to the refugees’ struggles. His father was a Greek refugee from Turkey who subsequently fled to France to escape oppression under the military dictatorship of the sixties.

    “We still advocate for open borders, against border policies and for the right of free circulation for all refugees around Europe. But we are saying if now they are stuck here, they are welcome and we will help them live here with us in humane conditions, with their dignity.”

    Life in the collective

    Daily assemblies are held in the Plaza’s dining room. Amid a cacophony of Greek, English, Arabic, and Farsi, weekly rotas are decided, with the guests sharing responsibilities for cleaning, serving food and security patrols.

    Nesrine, a former English teacher from Syria, sips a coffee with one hand, balancing her squirming two-year-old son Basel in the other. She and her cousin travelled from Aleppo, hoping to reach their husbands in Germany who had made the trip last summer when the route through the Balkans was still open. Now they are grounded in Greece, forced to put their hopes in family reunification procedures that could take months, or even years. According to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, more than 60 percent of the refugees stranded in Greece are women and children.


    Nicola Zolin/IRIN
    Nesrine, one of the hotel's guests, with her 2-year-old son, Basel


    “We are waiting to be humans. Now we are only numbers. But the guys here made a nice project,” says Nesrine. “The Greeks are good people; maybe because they understand poverty and war. They have lived a long time the kind of days that we are living. Greek refugees even came to Aleppo 100 years ago.”

    Over the last fortnight, bombs have rained down on Syria’s largest city, devastating Aleppo’s residential neighbourhoods and making a mockery of a ceasefire agreed in February. Nesrine’s parents gave their daughter the last of their money to reach Europe.

    “Just this moment I have been talking with them on Skype. They are underground, trying to hide from the bombs everywhere and I’m happy that they are alive. Every time I am calling them, and my first words are ‘Mummy, are you still breathing?’”  

    The new normal

    City Plaza is a hive of activity. Old Syrian ladies vacuum the corridors; Kurdish children wipe tables; and Iranian women serve up steaming plates of rice and fried vegetables. The hotel itself is a metaphor for Greece’s precipitous fortunes. Built in preparation for the 2004 Olympics with government loans that were freely handed out in the boom years, the business subsequently fell into bankruptcy amid allegations that the owner fled without paying the workers’ final salaries.


    Nicola Zolin/IRIN
    Refugees and volunteers serve a dinner which they have also helped to cook


    “The former employees heard what we are doing here now and they publicly support us,” says Andrulidakis.

    “There are other empty buildings in Athens. With another 100 places like this, we can take thousands of refugees off the streets. How can you deny them a roof?”

    For now, city authorities have taken no steps to try to evict the hotel’s new residents, perhaps relieved that it means a few hundred less refugees for them to deal with.

    As Greece’s ailing economy shows no signs of recovery and state capacity remains weak, solidarity networks like these are offering a new way of addressing the humanitarian emergency created by the stranded refugees. 

    Loukia, a political science PhD candidate and activist, rolls a cigarette while Afghan children play with a dog behind her.

    “The concept is to build new communities of co-existence between refugees and the local population. We don’t accept that refugees should be housed in ghettos or inhumane detention centres,” she tells IRIN.

    “It’s difficult for the refugees. They couldn’t understand why we would do this. They thought we were a rich NGO or a state actor, something official. They couldn’t understand how we got this huge building, and without being paid. But finally they have a roof, they eat well here and they are in a clean place. They didn’t want to stay in Greece, and they won’t stay forever; but now it’s the next step in their lives.”

    Photos by Nicola Zolin



    Welcome to the City Plaza: Greece’s refugee hotel

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