Refugees: Trapped in the greek winter

50,000 people are waiting in abandoned factories and on abandoned industrial estates for Europe to open its gates to them


Special reporters to greece


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Forgotten exile


T he Softext industrial unit, an abandoned toilet paper factory on the outskirts of Thessaloniki in northern Greece, has become the makeshift home for 600 Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Where once stood industrial machinery, there are now rows of tents and a couple of stands serving tea and food. The lights work at night, though in the daytime everything is in darkness. There is no glass in the windows and the fuses blow when people try to warm themselves up with electric heaters. The water in the showers runs cold because the boiler broke down a few weeks ago. Three times a day, army personnel hand out food prepared by a catering service. The menu is invariable: pasta and rice or rice and pasta. A bunch of kids run by pulling a young boy around on a tricycle. They take a bend too fast and the young boy goes flying. They are all wearing trainers but no socks and the cold is starting to bite. “I only wanted to come to Europe to get away from the bombs of the Syrian dictatorship and to live in peace,” laments Hixam, a boy from Homs who wants to get to the Netherlands to join up with his brother.

The Karamanlis refugee camp in northern Greece, a few kilometres from Thessaloniki
The Karamanlis refugee camp in northern Greece, a few kilometres from Thessaloniki

Not far away, in Vasilika, one of the four camps visited by ARA, both the conditions and the sense of desperation are similar. Ali tells us that he left Baghdad a year ago and that he is now asking to be allowed to return home with his wife and young son: “I prefer to be killed in Iraq rather than die of anguish in Europe”.

“I only wanted to come to Europe to get away from the bombs of the dictatorship in Syria and they are keeping us stranded here”
Syrian refugee

Eight months after the countries of Central Europe and the Balkans closed their borders in order to stop the flow of refugees, some 50,000 people are still trapped in Greece. People fleeing war, violence, persecution and a dire future have found themselves stranded in a country that offers them no way forward. EU member countries failed to follow through with their commitments to take in refugees and the 15,000 people who have arrived since 20 March, when the agreement by which the EU ceded the control of its borders to Turkey came into effect, now find themselves stranded on Greek Islands that have become gigantic prisons. The refugees have gone from being driven out of their country to enduring an enforced stalemate.

Living conditions in Moria are very hard due to the deficiencies in the facilities
Living conditions in Moria are very hard due to the deficiencies in the facilities
Living conditions in Moria are very hard due to the deficiencies in the facilities
Living conditions in Moria are very hard due to the deficiencies in the facilities

On the Greek mainland, the refugees have survived for a year living in abandoned industrial sites where they have pitched their tents for shelter: sites like the former Olympic facilities and the old airport in Athens, or in ex-industrial sites on the outskirts of Thessaloniki, where the Greek authorities transferred them following last year’s forced clearance of the makeshift camp at Idonemi on the border with Macedonia. The camps are under army control and there is little for the refugees to do. Some minors, who have made their way there alone, end up in the dark world of prostitution and drugs.

The departure lounge at the old Eliniko airport in Athens provides precarious shelter for 700 refugees
The departure lounge at the old Eliniko airport in Athens provides precarious shelter for 700 refugees

“This is not living: it’s very cold here and the children are always falling sick… We wanted to come to Europe to work and give them a future, not to be shut up like animals waiting to be fed three times a day,” says a young Afghan woman who is mother to a three-year-old girl and a one-and-half-year old boy. She is living with some 700 of her compatriots in the international terminal of the old Elleniko Airport. She fled the Taliban in February 2015, carrying her daughter on her shoulders. Her son was born during the journey. A year later, after crossing Iran and Turkey, she set foot in Europe for the first time, soaking wet when disembarking from a small boat on the island of Lesbos. “We’ve been stranded here for nine months; our money had run out and they don’t let us work,” she complains.

“The refugee camps were supposed to be an immediate, temporary solution but things are dragging on because of the desperate slowness of the system: it now looks like they will be here for years”
Loïc Jaeger
Medecins Sans Frontieres

There is a clear disjunction between the natural rhythms of life and the slow grind of bureaucracy: each person must undergo two interviews and present the documents required to support their request for asylum. While they are waiting in line, waiting for interviews and waiting for answers, their money runs out, their health worsens, their children grow up without schooling or limits and the adults become more and more desperate. It is a time that is wasted and the result is counterproductive: when the bureaucratic process finally reaches its conclusion and they are relocated in a European country (or, like the majority of Afghans and Iranians, have their application rejected and have to carry on living in Greece as illegal immigrants) they are poorer, more vulnerable and even more broken. The arrival of winter only makes things worse. Only 13,000 of the most vulnerable cases (the ill, the old and babies) have been transferred to hostels or apartments. The “winter aid programme”, which consists of exchanging their tents for prefabricated barracks, is still at the beginning stages, but the cold waits for no one.

Winter makes the situation of refugees in the camps in northern Greece even more critical
Winter makes the situation of refugees in the camps in northern Greece even more critical
Winter makes the situation of refugees in the camps in northern Greece even more critical
Winter makes the situation of refugees in the camps in northern Greece even more critical

“The refugee camps were supposed to be an immediate, temporary solution, but things are dragging on because of the desperate slowness of the system: it now looks like they will be here for years,” says Loïc Jaeger, head of the Doctors Without Borders mission in Greece.

The refugees are victims of institutional neglect on a continental scale. The Greek authorities have demonstrated that they are unable to deal with these people, even though they have placed the army at the disposal of international and European institutions to keep them under control. But this is not a Greek problem: up to 1 December, the countries of the EU have only resettled 6,149 of the 66,400 people in Greece that they committed themselves to admitting until the end of 2017. That is less than 10%. And only 348 have been taken in by Spain”.


The people behind the drama

  • "Al-Assad’s secret service has taken my son"

    Adnan, 49 years old. Oil engineer. Deir al-Zour (Syria)

    Before the war he was an oil engineer for the Al-Furat petroleum company, which is a joint venture by the Anglo-Dutch Shell company. He used to live near Deir al-Zor, an area infiltrated by the Daesh (Islamic State) but under the control of the Al-Assad regime. His eldest son was detained two and a half years ago by the ‘muhabarat’, the Syrian secret police, while he was taking his university entrance exams. He was only 17 years old. His father does not know if he is dead or alive. His wife stayed behind in Damascus trying to track him down while Adnan travelled to Europe with his two younger sons, one of whom is deaf, in order to join his five brothers who are living in Germany. Upon arriving in Idomeni they found the border closed and are now living in the Softex refugee camp, in an abandoned industrial site under military control. He is in charge of reviewing the facility and notifying the authorities of technical problems. “The major powers are making a big mistake if they believe that Bashar Al-Assad is an ally in their fight against Daesh; quite the opposite. I don’t think we’ll be able to go back to Syria for another 20 or 30 years. Meanwhile, I hope I can carry on with our journey and find a better future for my children,” he explains.

  • "I don’t understand why the Spanish government won’t accept me"

    Mustafa Assaloum, 23 years old. Student. Deir al-Zour (Syria)

    We met him last April at Idomeni refugee camp, where he was waiting for the Macedonian border to open. Three years ago he lost a leg in a terrorist attack in Homs and he made his way alone from Syria to Greece with the help of crutches. Following the publication of his story by ARA, the Desvern Prosthetics Institute offered to help him to obtain a prosthetic leg. The University of Barcelona has accepted him on its programme for refugee students, which covers lodging, upkeep and tuition fees. The corresponding documentation has been sitting at the Spanish government’s Asylum and Refugee Office for six months and so far there has been no response. “They told me that I had to wait. I can’t stand it anymore here in Greece. I don’t understand why the Spanish government won’t accept me when there are so many people in Barcelona ready to help me,” says this young Syrian who insists that he does not want his crutches to appear in the photograph. He has been stranded in Greece for nine months and is living in a hostel where he teaches English to other refugees.

  • "There’s nothing for us to do here: all we can do is sleep"

    Baishur, 70 years old. Jubilat. Kurdistan (Syria).

    He is travelling with his wife, Shiham, and his two granddaughters, Aynur, who is 7 years old, and Benfih, who is 13 years of age. Some years ago he underwent a bypass operation and he is carrying a large bag full of medicine. He admits that he should not really smoke but confesses that he is unable to give it up. He spends practically all day lying on his bunk in a tent at the Kolochari camp, which is located in an abandoned factory where 600 refugees were relocated when the makeshift camp at Idomeni was cleared. He is trying to reach Germany so that his granddaughters can be reunited with their parents, who made their way there some months earlier. They are sending him money from Germany for food and medicine and to top up their mobile phone credit and to cover small expenses while they are waiting to move on. They have also been able to buy a number of small household items including a casserole, a kettle and the tablet that keeps the children amused. Benfih says that she misses school: “They should open the borders; they should let us go on to meet up with our parents”. They have a clear case: they are from Syria, they are in a situation of vulnerability and their parents are already in Germany. Another question, though, is the slow march of bureaucracy.

  • "I’m happy because I’m pregnant"

    Somaya Tamo, 29 years old. Factory worker. Qamishlo (Syria)

    Despite living in the SK Market refugee camp on the outskirts of Thessaloniki, where she shares a tent with a friend and her family in an old vegetable storeroom, Somaya is happy to be pregnant. “I’ve wanted to have a baby for years and it’s finally happening. Things are tough here but my desire to become a mother is even stronger,” she says smiling. She hopes that when her child is born – she is due on 6 June – she will be in the Netherlands, reunited with her husband. He worked in construction and she worked at a biscuit factory in Syrian Kurdistan: since they did not have enough money to pay two people smugglers they decided that he should go ahead alone. She is not sure whether her child will be born Syrian, Greek or Dutch. He baby will be one of the thousands born during the diaspora. But she does know that she will tell him his story (“By that time it will only be a memory”) and that, wherever he is born, he will be a Kurd and will have a better future thanks to his father’s efforts. She still hopes that the war will end one day and that her family will be able to return to their homeland. Her dream is that her baby will one day meet his grandmother, who is currently living as a refugee in Iraqi Kurdistan.

  • "The Taliban kill you quickly, Europe is doing it slowly"

    Daoud Amini, 47 years old. Ex-army officer. Kandahar (Afghanistan)

    Dressed in his military uniform, Daoud is the maximum authority in the international terminal at Eliniko, Athen’s old airport, which has now been transformed into a makeshift refugee camp housing some 700 Afghans. He organises cleaning duties and settles conflicts. He shows us a wound from when a bullet went clean through his leg. His brother was killed by the Taliban and he fled the country with his two wives and four children. The journey cost them a total of $42,000, and by the time they arrived in Greece they had spent practically all of their savings. “When we got here we found the border closed. We have nothing and we aren’t allowed to work. We want to go to a place where we can earn a living, like Germany, France, the Netherlands or England… wherever… We aren’t lazy people and we don’t like to be here waiting to be brought food three times a day. I’m willing and able to work”. Daoud points out that they can no longer return home: “We wouldn’t last a minute there; the Taliban would shoot us down, but Europe is killing us slowly,” he laments.

  • "If only I could go back in time and get my life back…”

    Wejdan, 27 years old. Housewife. Daraa (Syria)

    She left Syria nine months ago with her children aged six and three. She is holding the youngest one in her arms. He was born two months ago in a Greek hospital in Kilkis. She is travelling with her husband, who is a construction worker, and they are living in the Karamanlis refugee camp on the outskirts of Thessaloniki, where the Greek authorities transferred them following the closing down of the makeshift camp in Idomeni. "We’re better off here because we’re sheltered from the sun and the rain and we don’t have to spend all day queuing, though this is no place to bring up children,” she says. The family say that they have no preferred destination: they have only heard that refugees are well treated in Norway and Canada, though they say that they are willing to be resettled anywhere that is “safe for the children and where they can get an education and have a future”. She cannot hide the sense of nostalgia she feels for the life that she has left behind: "Daraa is a wonderful city. When the war broke out we had to leave for another city and now we’re afraid that it may have been destroyed. If only I could go back in time... In Syria we had a lovely house and here we’re living in a miserable tent".

  • “I’ve written a screenplay and I’m translating it to English”

    Shorab Feyz, 54 years old. TV screenplay writer. Teheran (Iran)

    She had fled from the Ayatollah’s regime 30 years ago and returned to Iran in 2009, when the government of the reformist President Mahmud Ahmadinejad seemed to promise hope for change. But that mirage did not last long and Shorab’s satirical TV programmes demonstrated how thin the red lines were at that time. “If you want to make television in Iran you have to follow orders. You have to do what you’re told”, she explains. “If one of your characters annoys the people in power the show is over and so are you”. Having no family, she decided to set out once again on the road to exile. She is now living in the makeshift refugee camp in the old Athens airport, waiting for her asylum application to be resolved. She arrived at the camp when Idomeni was closed down, and she says that she is happier being near to the Greek capital. While in exile she has not stopped writing screenplays and she now wants to devote herself to comedy. “Now that Mr Bean is getting old, we can invent new things,” she says jokingly. “I have some ideas that could appeal to a universal audience and I’m translating one of my screenplays to English. I don’t know whether I’ll be heading for the Netherlands, France or Germany”.

  • "I really felt like going back to school"

    Student, 10 years old. Herat (Afghanistan)

    At the Pikpa refugee camp, which is managed by volunteers on the island of Lesbos, a group of boys and girls are hard at work doing their homework. An Afghan boy, whose identity we will protect, writes a text in Pashtu in his notebook and then translates it into Greek: “I really felt like going back to school”. He started studying again only two weeks ago after more than a year without schooling. He is happy now and says that, like the other refugee children who are studying in classroom number 8 at Mitilene, together with their Greek classmates, he feels that he has been made welcome. His English is good enough to show that he has had to grow up quickly and he smiles when we tell him that he will soon have to translate for his parents. "Kalimera", "Kalispera", he says with a smile, showing us that he knows how to say good morning and good afternoon in the local language. His is a childhood marked by exile, but it also demonstrates his ability to adapt and his determination to live. The teachers at the school point out that the refugee children are adapting well to their new learning environment: they spend some hours every day in a special classroom studying Greek and they share sports, computer science and English lessons with the local children.

  • "I was afraid that the children would fall into the water"

    Isra, 31 years old. Housewife. Damascus (Syria)

    Her youngest child, named Nur, was born by caesarean section on 2 January 2016.  She intended to wait until she was well again and for her baby to grow a little before following in the steps of her husband, who had set off for Germany some months earlier. But the news of the imminent closing of the borders in Europe obliged her to change plans. Still recovering from the birth and with a 15-day old baby, as well as three other children, she set off with her sister. “If they hadn’t held us for 17 days in Turkey we would have made it in time and we would now be in Germany,” she laments. She spent her captivity in Turkey in a sports stadium under military control: “The only food they gave us was a handful of olives,” she remembers. She says that putting her children on a refugee boat was the hardest decision she has ever had to take. Neither she nor her children can swim. “I had my baby in my arms and I was afraid that the other three children would fall into the water”. She is now waiting in the SK Market camp for bureaucracy to allow her to continue on her way. "I’m only looking for a place where my children can be healthy and go to school. They haven’t attended school for a year and that’s the most important thing for me".

  • “The Taliban and the government in Afghanistan are killing us"

    Samiullah Barez, 24 years old. Law graduate. (Afghanistan)

    “We lived reasonably well at home. My father had some land and I studied law in the morning and worked at a tailor’s shop in the afternoon. I had my own room, my laptop, my things. But what use was all of that if they were going to kill me? Samiullah confronted his parent a year ago, just after graduating and shortly after a classmate of his had died in a Taliban bomb attack, and he told them that he wanted to leave the country. They gave him €5,000 for the journey, which he embarked on with a cousin of the same age. After being arrested four times by the Iranian police, they managed to get through. “The Taliban are killing us but the government is also condemning us to a living death: I’ve been studying for 16 years and can’t get a job”. He has been trapped in Greece for months now, living in an old airport, and he has tried his luck again, hiding himself in the chassis of a lorry that was travelling from the port of Patras to Italy. The two times he tried that he was detained by the Italian police. He paid €1,000 to the people-smuggling mafia and will be trying again if he can: “Even mafias have their rules and what you pay covers all your attempts, until you actually make it through”.

  • "I went with men to survive"

    Ali, 26 years old. Carpenter. Kabul (Afghanistan)

    This young man told us of how he fled Afghanistan after witnessing how the Taliban killed a group of children. He reached Greece just a few months ago by crossing the country’s land border with Turkey, which follows the course of the River Evros. The journey cost him €3,000 and took him two months. He now lives on the streets of Athens, hiding from the police. “I’ve run out of money and survive by offering sexual company to older men. We do it in the bushes in the park. They pay me from €5 to €15 depending what they want,” he explains. He feels ashamed but says that he has no other way to survive. "I came to Europe in search of a future but now I only want to go back home”. Prostitution has become the only way out for hundred of undocumented young men trapped in the Greek capital, some of whom are underage boys who arrived in Greece on their own. You can see them in the rougher parts of town, in Omonia Square, in Victoria Square and in Pedion Tou Areos Park. Since the 1990s, clandestine immigrants have been the lifeblood of the Greek prostitution industry; the problem is an old one but with the recent waves of immigration the figures have soared.

  • "I’ve only been able to spend 31 days with my son"

    Zakaria, 31 years old. Aleppo (Syria)

    This Economics student once earned a living teaching Arabic and English. Then, in December 2010 he was called to serve in the military on the other side of Syria, in the region of Daraa, the birthplace of the popular uprising against Al-Assad. He deserted when he was ordered to fire on protestors but he was arrested. “They tortured me and I survived by eating olive stones and orange peel,” he tells. We are not showing his image here for his own protection. He was released after four years and he returned to the area of Aleppo under government control with his wife (who had also spent a number of months in prison for being married to a deserter) and his son. They hid there until they were able to pass over to the “free” side of the city: “I had to take a 12-hour detour in order to reach the next door neighbourhood,” he remembers. He fled to Turkey, but his wife has not yet been able to leave Syria. He has only been able to spend a total of 31 days with his five-year-old son. “They have stolen our revolution from us: we only wanted democracy and justice. The European governments are also criminals: they’re involved in the war and they’re shutting their doors to us,” he says.


Solidarity that will not give up

Volunteers from the Eko Project have set up a camp next to Vasilika, near Thessaloniki
Volunteers from the Eko Project have set up a camp next to Vasilika, near Thessaloniki


Shoulder to shoulder with the refugees

A wooden hut with shelves full of books and games, drawing boards, carpets, curtains and pictures hanging on the walls has become the closest thing to a house for many children at the Vasilika refugee camp, on the outskirts of Thessaloniki. It was built by refugees and volunteers from the EKO community, with funding by the Fotomovimiento group. Until that time, many of the children had practically forgotten what it felt like to set foot in a space with doors and windows. “Everything here is organized horizontally and things are done jointly by the refugees and volunteers," explains Sílvia Pagès, an architect from Sant Joan les Fonts, who has decided to devote a few months of her time to the project. The community was created in the spring, when a group of volunteers, many of them Catalans, travelled to the makeshift Idomeni refugee camp with more good will than material support.

Once there, they found that the EKO petrol station, located some 10 kilometres from the border, had been transformed into a makeshift camp. They offered to do what they could to help out and started working in such as way as to give the refugees a leading role. Working together they managed to improve conditions in the camp. But on 13 June the refugees were evicted by the Greek riot police and were transferred to a military run camp in a disused grain warehouse in the town of Vasilika. The volunteers decided not to work in the military camp but they rented a plot of land 100 metres from the warehouse where they aim to make a place where the refugees can conquer their anguish and recover their hope. There are areas for the children, classrooms for the boys and girls, and also a place where adults can relax and make some money through their handicrafts. In the morning they prepare breakfast and in the afternoon the refugees make tea for everyone. It is balsam for spirits stranded before the walls of Europe.

The Pikpa camp on the island of Lesbos is self-managed by volunteers and refugees
The Pikpa camp on the island of Lesbos is self-managed by volunteers and refugees


Warmth for the most vulnerable

A short distance away from Mytilene, the capital of the Greek island of Lesbos, stands an old summer camp that the council had abandoned years ago. When Lesbos became the main gateway for refugees in Europe last year, local volunteers organized themselves to offer housing to the newcomers. Currently a hundred people, who were in a situation of vulnerability, are living there in wooden cabins. The storage rooms there were built by recycling the wood and rubber from the inflatable boats on which hundreds of thousands of refugees came to the island. There is a garden and a communal kitchen that the families can use to prepare the food that they are given.

The volunteers make sure that the refugees have access to legal advice, medical and psychological assistance, a vegetable garden and clothes. They hold weekly assemblies. “People from many different nationalities are living together here and we are learning about what future societies are going to be like,” explains Erika Razzaque, a volunteer who exchanged London for this refugee camp, fed up of the reigning xenophobic discourse. “This is not a Greek problem: it’s everyone’s reality. Like it or not, people will continue to arrive because the situation in their homelands is unbearable and we can’t just send them back. We have to face facts and find deep-reaching solutions”.

The main doors at the Hotel City Plaza in Athens, which now houses refugee families and is run by volunteers
The main doors at the Hotel City Plaza in Athens, which now houses refugee families and is run by volunteers


The 'best hotel in the world'

Since April of last year, Hotel City Plaza in the centre of Athens, which had closed due to the financial crisis, became a place that welcomed refugees. “We asked ourselves what was more important, private property or people’s lives, and there was only one possible answer,” explains Nassim Loami, one of the activists who is devoted, heart and soul, to the project. Since then the guests at the hotel are from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Kurdistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Gambia, and 90% of the residents are families with children.

“The hotel doesn’t only house 400 refugees, it’s also a centre for the struggle against EU policies,” Loami reveals. Since the closure of the Idomeni camp we have been demanding that the Syriza government open up empty buildings for the refugees instead of keeping them in camps in conditions that are particularly terrible for vulnerable people arriving here from war torn countries,” he says. “But the problem is not just a humanitarian one: the closing of the borders pushes refugees into the arms of the mafias and of death. At the end of the year at least 5,000 people will have died in the Mediterranean”, he points out. The refugees take turns to work in the kitchens and the café, to do the cleaning and manage the larder and the clothes supplies. There are also Greek, English and German classes on offer and the children attend neighbourhood schools. They like to call the City Plaza “the best hotel in the world”.

1a Part (Abril 2016)

Idomeni, última parada

Design and editing: Sílvia Barroso, Ricard Marfà, Idoia Longan, Marc Camprodon i Marta Masdeu