Europe’s crisis of conscience

The UN voiced serious concern at what it calls substandard conditions in several government-run refugee sites in Greece. It wants the EU to find better alternatives. TRT World’s Ali Mustafa has met some of the people living in squalid conditions.

Photo by: TRT WORLD
Photo by: TRT WORLD

Updated Jun 1, 2016

"Only God is here to help us," said Khalil Najjar, a 22-year-old refugee from the Syrian city of Aleppo now living at the Chersou refugee camp in Greece. In recent weeks, the camp has been plagued by violence, and refugees living here say living conditions are getting worse.

After escaping Syrian regime barrel bombs in Aleppo, Najjar had briefly worked in the Turkish city of Mardin before he was able to make a journey to Europe. The fair-skinned Syrian boarded a raft in Izmir in January this year and had arrived on the Greek island of Kos. Within a few weeks, he’d reached northern Greece, where his journey came to an abrupt end. "I was about to leave for Germany when Macedonia shut its borders," said Najjar. He said all of the 2,000 Syrian refugees at Chersou had been moved there by Greek authorities around the same time. "In Syria I had walls and a roof, here I live under a piece of cloth, next to snakes and rats," Najjar said. He added, "There is nothing for us here, we want to move on."

After Macedonia shut its borders with Greece at the Idomeni railway crossing, Greek authorities had little time to meet the needs of the growing number of refugees who continued to arrive in large numbers from the south. Twelve thousand refugees had set camp at Idomeni and started occupying the railway tracks, because space was running out in the adjacent fields. Tents on the tracks became a protest against Skopje’s decision to close the border, through which thousands had earlier passed on to destinations in Europe such as Austria and Germany.

"We were the unlucky ones," said Ahmed Sarmanoush, a Syrian from Idlib, who was also living at the Chersou camp with his wife. Sarmanoush told us that he was a black belt in Taekwondo and had reached number three in all of Syria in 2011, when the war started.  "But then things changed," he said.

Defying his family, a few years later, a now married Sarmanoush took it upon himself to reach Europe and had spent ten days in Turkey before reaching Greece in February, just as Macedonia shut its borders. Khalil and Ahmed had become quick friends and both would go around the camp noting complaints of their fellow Syrian refugees.

In emptying out Idomeni, Greek authorities had resisted the use of force. Instead they had coopted and coerced refugees to leave the area. The water supply was slowly turned off and access to the camp was restricted. People could leave, but not enter. Assurances were also given that there would be no deportations, and that refugees and migrants would have the same freedom of movement within Greece that they’d had at Idomeni, before restrictions were placed. Some of the refugees left on foot, by themselves, wary of being "cocooned inside a government facility, indefinitely," said one Idomeni refugee on the condition of anonymity. Those who agreed were driven out in buses to so called "refugee hotspots," like Chersou, that had been setup by the Greek government.

They left everything behind. Shoes, tents, clothes, anything and everything that could not be carried, became expendable in a matter of days. On the last day of the eviction, a few of the refugees tired and frustrated set fire to shelter number eight at Idomeni. "The children cried and our volunteers had tears in their eyes'', remembers Katy Athersuch, a spokesman for the Doctors without Borders charity group. ''What happened at Idomeni shows the failure of Europe to permanently solve the refugee crisis. Instead Europe and Greece chose to pass the issue on," said Athersuch.

We had earlier caught up with Ahmed Sarmanoush and his wife outside an asylum processing facility on the outskirts of Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city. They’d traveled by train from the Chersou camp to try their chance at an asylum-processing centre in the hopes of a Skype interview with a UNHCR official, but were denied access to the facility and the gates had been locked to prevent anyone from entering.

Greek authorities said that any refugee hoping to apply for asylum could do so via Skype using a smartphone or at a hotspot. But some refugees don’t have smartphones and ‘Skype interview tents’ at hotspots are only provided by a few charities at a handful of facilities. There are also major logistical challenges.

A Skype interview with a Greek UNHCR official is the beginning of a long, often arduous process to completing required documentation, which enables a refugee from Greece to make the journey onwards. None of the people we spoke with have had an interview yet. "UNHCR officials only give four hours of interviews every week via Skype," a frustrated Sarmanoush said. "There are sixty thousand Syrians stuck in Greece waiting for an interview," said Sarmanoush. He said he’d been trying to get an interview since he’d arrived but that it was very hard to get through. "Everyone at the camp is desperate to get out, but without papers we can’t go anywhere," he said.

"There is an alternative. One thousand euros will get you to Germany in a month by foot, but you’d have to go through multiple networks in many countries to reach there," said Sarmanoush. He showed us a text message from a relative who’d just reached Austria after setting out of Greece on foot a month earlier. "He had a reliable smuggler." Being able to trust the right people is very important for refugees who are short of money, who can be taken for a costly ride to no-where. So people rely on networks and individuals with a proven track record. "The reliable couriers will take money once you’ve reached your destination, but these are desperate times and many people have started to pay up-front," Sarmanoush said.

Most of the refugees we spoke to wanted to go to Germany where they had relatives. Twenty-seven-year old Hala is one of them. The ethnic Kurd from Syria’s Afrin region has been at the Chersou camp with her six children since February. "I want to go to Germany so I can be with my husband," said Hala while trying to comfort three-year-old Sham. Her daughter hadn’t slept for three nights because as the days were getting hotter, the nights at the field where the Chersou camp was set, felt chillier than usual. "This is no way for a human being to live, we have been put out in the middle of no-where, like animals," said Hala with tears in her eyes. Hala's eldest daughter, eleven-year-old Noreen, comforted her as she wept. Between Noreen and Sham, Hala, despite her young age, is also mother to three boys. She told her eldest son Mustafa, to pull up his shirt. Red spots covered the boy’s abdomen and chest. "Mosquito bites," he said with a smile.

A few tents down from where Hala and her children were staying we met Farouk and his wife Naznin. They were Kurds from Aleppo and had decided to leave as soon as they found out that Naznin was pregnant. "It was a miracle," Farouk told us recounting the moment he learnt his forty-five-year old wife had conceived for the first time. But soon those happy memories were lost to the bitter reality of camp life in Greece. "Why did I make the journey from Syria to Europe? To be herded like cattle in the middle of nowhere? My past is better than my future. My present is this tent (where I live) and this toilet next to it. I will go back to Syria than keep on living in shame," said Farouk with anger in his eyes.

Farouk and his pregnant wife Naznin reminisce about better days

The Greek government says it’s been overwhelmed by the extent of the refugee crisis, but that it is trying to make things easier for the refugees. "Our approach has been a humane one," said Major Georgos, a tall man with a swimmer build, of the Greek armed forces. Georgos had invited us to visit the Diavata refugee camp in an industrial area on the outskirts of Thessaloniki. Unlike the camp at Chersou, refugees at Diavata seem much happier. The Diavata refugee camp has a school and a fully stocked medical centre run by the International committee of the Red Cross. The charity Save the Children helps run a service for orphaned children and volunteers play music after school has ended. There is also a child protection unit run by the UNHCR and IRC coordinates with the government to maintain hygiene. "Maintaining cleanliness is the biggest priority for us," said Georgos.

"We want to upgrade all facilities to the standards we are achieving at Diavata," said Major Georgos as he took us around the camp. "I love you major," shouted a little boy as we passed a tent. The major smiled. At another tent, a little girl ran up to Georges and gave him a piece of paper with a painting on it. The major passed this on to us, "take it" he said "I am running out of space to store these," he said. "We are doing the best we can, but realise that a lot more needs to happen," said Stavroula Georgiou, an official at the Greek immigration ministry. She said Europe was only now beginning to realise the challenge Greece was facing.

Now everyone present at Diavata is entitled to apply for asylum. Ten percent of the refugee camp’s population is from Afghanistan. These people are considered as economic migrants and aren’t afforded the same privileges as their Syrian counterparts. As Idomeni was being emptied out, refugees were banding together at other makeshift sites. A few thousand had created a tent city at Polykastro, fifteen kilometres outside of Idomeni. Greek officials told us that this illegal camp will also be removed soon, but others aren’t so sure. 

"There was a lot of economic pressure on the Greek government to remove refugees from Idomeni because the railway tracks were blocked," said Camille, a Doctors Without Borders official from France. "After Macedonia shut its side of the border, goods had to be rerouted through Bulgaria," said Camille.

"Tell him about the fighting," Sarmanoush prodded Khalil, back at the Chersou camp. They spoke of an incident at the camp a few weeks earlier, when frustrated by the conditions at the facility; Syrian refugees, divided along ethnic lines had fought over the distribution of food. "Arabs and the Kurds," said Ahmed Sarmanoush. "We left Syria to escape the misery and the fighting. But we couldn’t escape. Syria found us in Greece as well," said Khalil Najjar, with a look of resignation in his eyes. 

Author: Ali MustafaYuksel Pecenek, Nick Davies-Jones