Police evicted refugees from squats in Athens leaving dozens of people including families with no place to go.
Athens, Greece - On the morning of April 11, Greek police officers suited up and raided a pair of squatted buildings in the capital’s Exarchia neighborhood, leaving dozens of people -among them refugee families- homeless.
Later that afternoon, right-wing mayoral candidate Kostas Bakoyannis, a member of the New Democracy opposition party, attended a rally on the outskirts of the neighbourhood.
Addressing a handful of local residents, he vowed to crack down on “lawlessness” in the area, a safe haven for refugees and frequently the site of clashes between police and anarchists.
Across Athens, thousands of refugees and migrants live in squatted buildings, often preferring the living conditions to the refugee camps, many of which are overcrowded and sit far from the city centre.
Although there is no official tally, former Athens Mayor Giorgos Kaminis estimated that between 2,000 and 3,000 refugees lived in squats in May 2017, a number that has likely grown in the last two years.
A week later, on April 18, refugee advocate Arash Hampay received a message informing him that police officers were storming the nearby Clandestina and Cyclops squats, sweeping the inhabitants from the buildings and briefly detaining dozens.
Hampay, a 34-year-old Iranian refugee, is the founder of Our House, an initiative that helps feed homeless refugees and others in the city.
He rushed to the squat and pulled out his phone to film the eviction. A police officer shouted in his direction, demanding that he put away his phone. “They didn’t want anyone to see what they were doing,” he told TRT World, estimating that the spate of raids resulted in the eviction of between 200 and 300 refugees and migrants.
The police officers Hampay and took him to a nearby police station, but they released him an hour later, after searching his phone and checking his documents.
At the time of publication, the Hellenic Police spokesperson had not replied to TRT World’s request for a comment.
Speaking to local press at the time, police sources said the raids were part of a crackdown on crime and drug dealing in the neighbourhood, citing a botched drug raid that ended with an ambush targeting Coast Guard officers in the area on April 4.
Many of the refugees ousted by the April 18 raids set up a protest camp in front of the Greek parliament, and several were transferred to Eleonas, a refugee camp on the outskirts of Athens.
Within a few days, Greek police returned and evicted “squatters” from the camp, detaining yet more people.
Since Our House was founded some 11 months ago, Hampay has observed a growing number of homeless people, among them refugees and migrants, showing up for the group’s food distribution in the capital each night.
“There are more homeless people and refugees now,” he explained. “When we first started I didn’t see families or single women, but now every day we have full families and pregnant women and parents with little babies.”
Hampay added, “It’s a shock to have this in Europe. You can’t imagine a pregnant woman or baby being homeless here.”
Human rights at risk
In recent years, across the European Union, conditions have grown increasingly difficult for refugees and migrants who fled war and economic devastation in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa.
Far-right Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has tightened restrictions on refugees and migrants entering the Central European country.
Nearly a year after criminalising aid work on behalf of refugees, Hungary stands accused of systematically denying asylum seekers food while they wait in detention in transit zones on the border. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee has described the measure as “an unprecedented human rights violation in 21st-century Europe”.
In France’s Calais, the number of unaccompanied minors sleeping rough reached a “breaking point”, according to NGOs working in the area.
In Italy, far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini has overseen an escalation of evictions targeting refugee reception centers and several high-profile standoffs in which refugee boats were prevented from disembarking on Italian shores. In January, authorities booted dozens from the country’s second-largest reception centre in Rome.
Last year, Germany deported nearly 9,000 refugees - a “record number” - back to other EU countries, the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung reported in January.
In Greece, human rights groups have repeatedly sounded the alarm on the dismal living conditions in camps, particularly on a handful of Aegean Islands.
According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, unaccompanied refugee children have been forced to live in “unsanitary conditions” and “can be abused and ill-treated by police”.
In December, HRW chided Greek authorities for “violent pushbacks” on the country’s land border with Turkey.
Last month, the Athens-based Racist Violence Recording Network (RVRN) released its annual report for 2018, which found that hate crimes had grown by 14 percent when compared to 2017. Attacks and threats targeting refugees and migrants accounted for more than half of the 117 incidents documented by the RVRN.
‘Crisis of solidarity’
When Afghan refugee Yonous Muhammadi first arrived in Greece in 2001, the country had no official reception centers and weak infrastructure to support newly-arrived asylum seekers.
The situation improved over the years, particularly under the left-wing Syriza party’s governance, the 45-year-old European Parliament candidate told TRT World. “But course the situation is now very harsh in camps and on the [Greek] islands … and thousands and thousands of people are out of the system, living in squats and in abandoned houses.”
Muhammadi, who is running in the European elections with the left-wing Syriza party, argued that “closing borders is not the solution”, insisting that the European Union ought to search for a “pan-European solution” to improve the lives and living conditions of refugees and migrants.
“It is not a refugee crisis,” he insisted. “What we have is a political crisis, a crisis of responsibility sharing, a crisis of solidarity.”
The number of refugees and migrants arriving in Europe boomed in 2015, with hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and economic devastation in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia.
Although the number of arrivals has since plummeted, the risks have swelled: Last year, an average of six people died or went missing at sea each day while en route to Europe, according to the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency.
As of April 28, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) had documented the arrival of 10,892 refugees and migrants in Greece. Of that total, nearly two-thirds had crossed the Mediterranean Sea to reach the country.
As summer approaches and the weather warms up, the number of refugees and migrants arriving in Greece is expected to again spike.
Speaking of the squat evictions, refugee Arash Hampay said, “They shouldn’t evict the refugees unless they have somewhere else to house them.”
He concluded, “If they want to evict all the squats [with refugees], thousands of people will be left sleeping in the streets … They’ll push people into the streets and the claim the city is getting dirty.”