By Naomi Westland, Press Officer at Amnesty International UK who has joined Amnesty’s researchers in Greece investigating what happens to refugees and migrants trying to get to Europe
Last week I wrote from the island of Lesvos, where my colleagues and I met people fleeing war, violence and hunger and trying to get to Europe. If you read that blog you may have been shocked at the treatment they receive in Greece.
Everyone we spoke to there was planning to go to Athens. They thought that in the capital things would start looking up. Sadly, the reality is very different.
“We came here to bring our children to safety but we were wrong,” said Amirah, a Syrian refugee who made the dangerous crossing from Turkey to the Greek island of Samos, and then made her way to Athens. “We are scared to go out because of the racists, and when we see police we know we could be stopped and put in prison.”
The racists she means are supporters of far-right parties like Golden Dawn, rapidly gaining public support as the country struggles with a crippling economic crisis, evidence of which is everywhere in Athens. Suicide rates are up, unemployment has rocketed, and homelessness is more common than ever.
“It’s really hard for people in Greece,” said Giorgos Kosmopoulos, Amnesty International’s EU team campaigner, who was born and bred in Athens. “But it’s even more important at a time like this that we don’t forget about human rights and solidarity.”
Amirah’s fear of racists is real. Attacks are on the rise and many leave people badly injured. In January a young Pakistani man was stabbed to death in the capital.
Mustafa, a Somali refugee, has been attacked twice on the streets of Athens since he arrived just over a year ago.
“The first time there were six of them, all young men, and they started shouting ‘mavro, mavro’ or ‘black, black,’” he explains. “They came up behind me. I instinctively put my arm up to protect my head and felt a big stick come down on my wrist. I fell down, my wrist was broken and my hand just hanging. I was on the ground and they started kicking me.”
When they ran off, Mustafa phoned the police, only to be asked if he had papers. He was still waiting for them to be processed so he said no. “We can’t help you then,” the operator told him.
In the second attack he was stabbed and beaten before managing to escape, covered in blood. Again the police did nothing. Both attacks happened in daylight. People sitting in cafés and walking past just looked on indifferently.
“I think Greeks like real-life horror movies,” he said with a resigned smile.
Despite this Mustafa wants to stay in Greece. He says he has made some good friends and he likes the culture and history.
“I have always made friends,” he says. “My dad used to say I was like a magnet. My Somali friends say ‘are you crazy? You hang out with Greeks’. But what’s the problem? It’s not a problem to hang out with people from anywhere in the world.”
But this magnetism has its downsides. Mustafa says he, like many migrants, is frequently stopped by police in sweep operations, ironically code-named Xenios Zeus after the Greek god of hospitality and protector of strangers.
If you don’t have documents proving you are registered with the authorities, you can be hauled off to one of the capital’s squalid detention centres that wouldn’t be out of place in medieval times. Many of the people we spoke to had spent months, some more than a year, behind bars.
Many remain without papers simply because the system is so chaotic and can be impossible to access.
At midnight on Friday we drive to the western outskirts of Athens to talk to people trying to apply for asylum.
As the roads get quieter and the houses fewer, we turn into a deserted complex of anonymous buildings, round a corner, pass a police check point and there suddenly, shockingly and out of sight of the rest of the world, hundreds of people – from Syria, Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea – are huddled together in a line along a metal fence.
The whole place is bathed in an eerie yellow glow from the street lights and it stinks of urine. Some people have been here for days, sleeping on flattened cardboard boxes they bring as mattresses, in the hope of getting a better place in the queue.
In an hour, a police officer will come and pick 20 people to register. The others must simply start the long walk back to the city centre.
En route they risk racist attacks. One man tells us they now come in twos and threes so they can protect each other. Many will try again next week, and the week after. Others will simply give up.
The atmosphere is tense and we approach tentatively. We explain who were are and where we’re from. Slowly people start to tell us their stories.
Many tell us they have been trying for months to get their papers. Others reveal experiences of terrifying racist violence and incessant police harassment. Within a few minutes I am surrounded by people wanting to tell their stories.
“You know what the problem is?” a man shouts from the back of the small crowd around me. “You have come here without a TV camera or microphone. The world needs to know what’s happening here.”
I explain again that my colleagues will write a report and we will do everything we can to put pressure on the Greek authorities and the EU to improve. I have an audio recorder in my pocket and get it out. “Turn it on,” the man demands. This is his message to you:
Driving back into town Giorgos looks out at the city where he grew up. “It’s really sad to see this happening here,” he says. “People are being treated so badly but they’ve done nothing wrong. They are just looking for the things that so many of us are lucky enough to take for granted.”
Disclaimer: Some names have been changed
‘Why don’t they just send me back to die?’ – Migrants despair on Europe’s borders (Blog, 12 April 2013)
‘I want all the world to know about us’ (Blog, 18 February 2013)