‘The world needs to know what’s happening here’ – Migrants living on the margins in Athens

Many migrants arrive in Lesvos and other parts of Greece with hopes of heading on to the capital Athens. © Amnesty International

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.

Asylum-seekers queuing outside Athens Aliens’ Police Directorate © Amnesty International

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

Read more:

‘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)

Posted in Asylum, Europe And Central Asia, Greece, Migrants | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

  1. Joe dimitriopoulos says:

    excuse me but let me say that the Greek people are living in poverty, what are you doing about that? real figures of youth unemployment exceed 60-70%, fix the country first then take care of migrants FFS.

  2. jennifer says:

    I would like to say that each human s have the rights to emerge to a country for any reason whether is economic reason or civil war reasons, humans beings have their rights to get a better life. This matter has to be pointed in the media as soon as possible.
    We do not blame Western countries to migrant to Africa or other countries to steal resources, oil, diamantes, and shaping the country o r even exporting conventional weapons to kind of regulate war in crimes, and corruption in Africa, Middle east…
    So, why should European countries treat others in inappropriate way while there are the one who in some cases, destroyed their country, because of corruption and secret deal.
    Enough of hypocrisy, and diplomacy, let the truth send you free!!

  3. Dorian says:

    Greece does not have the infrastructure to support this mass waves of migration. Its that simple.
    A country with so many economic troubles CAN NOT spare the resources that are needed to create decent detention centers at this very moment of its history.

    I remind readers that Greeks are extremely open to foreigners. There exists a word about foreigners that does not exist in any other language. ‘Filoxenia’.

    Now when a fair share of immigrants resort to theft, drug smuggling and a life of crime, one can understand that a people who are under tremendous stress, do not have the patience to deal with this VAST waves of desperate people..

    Whoever has a concern about immigrant living standards in Greece should arrange with their country to take in this people in and treat them as they see fit.
    Greece CAN NOT deal with this problem at this moment.
    I am absolutely positive that if Greece could, they would. Greeks love foreigners.

  4. Tanika says:

    We should welcome these people with open arms. A slice of bread and glass of milk is not to much to spare. The poor people i just feel sorry for them, they just want an easier, safer and happy life. Most of them are being killed at home, while others are beat and killed for being immigrants or what ever. There is no excuse AT ALL why refugees, immigrants (and all these negative descriptions) are being treated like animals. People have No heart. No feeling for any one but themselves!
    I cant even be bothered to talk about the government, thats a whole different ball game!!

    But it doesnt mean that we cant do whats right as a citizen! As a human being!
    Its upsetting to see that the world is coming to this.
    Times are hard for everyone but People are becoming greedy, selfish, bitter, and nonetheless, a big fat negative destructive waste of the human race!
    Every where and every one is struggling but if we all help eachother, there’ll be a greater chance of survival!
    And hopefully global unity
    We need global unity

  5. helen strachan says:

    I am British living in Athens i see every day what the Greek people go through. It is disgraceful what Troika and the Greek authorities are doing. In my opinion the people should rise up and kick troika back to where they came from . Go back to the drachma they will be better off . But believe me when i say Germany will pay

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