January 18, 2018
Mostly from Afghanistan and Syria, they set off to various destinations in northern Europe but with one goal in common: the need for a better life. “I want to go anywhere where people will treat me like a human being,” says Farah, a young man from Afghanistan. “I don’t care where it is, maybe Germany, maybe Austria.”
A common route involves travelling overland to Turkey before taking a flimsy boat to a Greek island. Hundreds of refugees have drowned in the Aegean Sea this summer because of inadequate, overloaded boats or because traffickers were sinking boats to avoid capture. “We started as a team of 15 families, but on the way some people separated, some couldn’t continue, so finally I arrived with just my own family,” says Farah. “There were a lot of people who lost their lives, I have seen a lot of dead bodies, it was very shocking.”
Those that survive arrive on islands including Kos and Lesbos. Unfortunately, even here they are not always safe. “We were walking for about 20 hours on Lesbos to reach a reception centre when a taxi pulled up and men inside offered to take us,” describes Omar, from Afghanistan. “When we entered they hit us and asked for our money before putting us back on the street.”
Fortunately, this sort of treatment is the exception. Many Greeks struggle to contribute as much as possible including clothes, food and medical supplies. Doctors of the World has volunteer doctors and nurses on several islands including Lesbos and on the Greece-Macedonia border providing much-needed medical care. “We work in some of the most densely populated areas including on the islands that receive a lot of people from the coast as well as in the central parts of Athens,” says Tasos Yfantis, part of Doctors of the World’s team in Greece.
Refugees report spending between three to five thousand dollars just to reach Greece. From there they take a boat to Pireaus on the Greek mainland and then a train to Athens. “I’ve spent about 5,000 dollars so far,” says Zahi. “But I have survived explosions in Afghanistan and I’m not worried any more about losing my life. I am hopeful and will go to any country where I can find a job.”
In the centre of Athens hundreds of refugees and migrants live in miserable conditions, mostly in Victoria Square. Here it is usually the public who help them. “It’s just ordinary people who bring us water, there is nothing from the government,” Farah says. Poor hygiene and healthcare access are perhaps the biggest problems people face at this stage. “There are a lot of women and children, even pregnant women and we don’t even have access to the toilet, we go the cafés but we are not always welcome,” says Farah. “It is cold and the children are getting sick and they need to see a doctor.”
On top of this people smugglers regularly prey on refugees which they see as money-making opportunities. “Some of them say “give me 50 euros, I will take you to the borders, others say give me 1,000, others say give me 3,000 euros to take you to Germany,”’ says Ali, an 18 year-old refugee from Syria. “It is very confusing.” Xenophobia is an ever-present menace in Greece. The neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn took 7% of the votes during the national elections in September, scoring political points using rhetoric against “foreigners” who are “taking jobs” and “bringing illnesses”.
But reality contradicts this. Greece is not the final destination for the refugees as most don’t believe it’s the best place for them to settle. “We understand that Greece is struggling with an economic crisis,” says Omar. “We do not ask much from them, just very basic things for the short time we are here.” Many Greek people do help. In Athens we met Makis, an avid football supporter: perhaps not the profile you’d expect of someone volunteering their time to help refugees. “The whole day we have been looking for a woman to help us buy things for the refugee women,” he says. “A woman knows better the needs of a fellow woman.”
Volunteers like Makis are doing work that arguably should be done by the state. Rather than helping, there is a perception among refugees that governments are in fact making life harder for refugees. “We know other countries like Germany will accept us, but why must we take this dangerous path and risk our lives?” Farah asks. “Why don’t these countries make our transition to these countries safe?”
These are difficult questions to answer but one thing remains clear: as long as wars fueled by the West continue to rage in places like Syria and Afghanistan thousands of people will continue to travel to Western shores. The most important thing is how people treat them when they get there.
By Achileas Kouremenos