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.
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.
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.