Human Rights

Martyr on the Mediterranean: Athens' double crisis

After six years of financial and social crisis, will the refugees trapped in Athens destroy the city or spark a rebirth?

A family of Syrians collect supplies against a background of the multi-storey apartment buildings in Athens [Iason Athanasiadis]

By the time the refugee tide hit Athens last summer, five years of financial crisis had already hollowed out its ancient centre. The marble pavements had been chipped and broken to provide ammunition against the riot-police, scorch marks from flaming Molotov cocktails marked the tarmac, and boarded-up stores and rough sleepers accrued around the refined commercial arcades and neoclassical and modernist architecture.

The nosediving economy and clashes between demonstrators and police resulted in thousands of shops closing, historical buildings burning and a general air of abandonment. Athenians queue up for food handouts, scavenge in bins, and congest medical clinics run by charities. Drug addicts have returned to the downtown to congregate in poorly lit side-streets and shoot up in the snatched privacy of parked cars' shadows.

Refugee stuck in Greece: I’m ready to walk back to Syria

Meanwhile, solidly immigrant neighbourhoods that developed over the past 30 years of Greek middle-class flight to the suburbs thrum with large families during the day, emptying out with the approach of iftar.

Covered women carry bulging bags from neighbourhood supermarkets to overcrowded flats redolent with the smell of cooking. On hot nights, groups of men crowd the pavements.

Urban prisons on the Mediterranean

These scenes are being replicated across a necklace of Mediterranean cities such as Beirut, Istanbul, Naples, and Marseilles, as they become urban holding zones along the European periphery.

Unable to move forward into the European Union but unwilling to go back to Turkey or Libya, the refugees settle into rundown urban neighbourhoods. Their presence is tolerated for injecting off-grid cash into strained economies, and resented for ghettoising the same districts.

READ MORE: Wired on Mount Athos

With conflict and terrorism racking traditional Mediterranean tourism destinations such as Egypt, Turkey and Tunisia, Greece is experiencing its busiest summer tourism season ever.

With conflict and terrorism racking traditional Mediterranean tourism destinations such as Egypt, Turkey and Tunisia, Greece is experiencing its busiest summer tourism season ever.

But Athens looks shabby, with those who haven't visited since the 2004 Athens Olympics professing shock at the grimy exhaustion displayed by buildings and inhabitants alike.

Grassroots solidarity groups, NGOs and humanitarian organisations have stepped in to help the Greek state to manage the needs of more than a half million refugees living in Athens who join destitute Greeks in using public services already stretch by reduced health and municipality budgets.

Add to this a crashed property market, middle-class flight, and neglect of the historical centre, and you have a city being torn apart at the seams.

Will the additional migrant burden cause Athens to collapse, or can it provide an example of how to house and integrate refugees at a time of systemic crisis?

From refugee anathema to crisis pivot

Many of the first-generation migrant workers who settled in Athens in the economically vibrant 1990s departed with the crisis.

Those who replaced them intended to go on through Greece to northern Europe but were discouraged by a lack of jobs, surging racism and a right-wing government conducting security sweeps and pushbacks in the Aegean Sea.

Elliniko refugee camp in Athens  [Al Jazeera]

Αs horror stories emerged about the terrible conditions in detention camps, Greece quickly ceased to be either a destination or a country to which those caught deeper inside Europe might be deported.

In 2013, a wall was completed across the border with Turkey, closing the Greek corridor.

Left-wing Syriza was elected in 2015 and closed the detention camps. But as ISIL (also known as ISIS) spread across Iraq and Syria and civil war engulfed Libya, refugee arrivals to Greece started picking up again, until the summer of 2015 when Athens was overwhelmed by the hundreds of thousands of people crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands.

READ MORE: Greece and the swansong of the nation-state

In the capital's largest park, Afghans erected a tent city among the busts of prominent ancient Greeks, and disoriented families straight off the boat crowded the city's central squares.

Refugees from Afghanistan and Syria wait for food handouts at the temporary tent camp in the Athens port of Piraeus [Iason Athanasiadis]

An extraordinary show of public solidarity ensued: grandmothers donated plastic bags filled with food, students played with refugee children, and activists cooked and provided night-time security.

Crisis along prosperity

Even as the refugee crisis spiralled, Greeks were polarised by a summertime referendum face-off with Brussels that resulted in harsher austerity.

Despite the heavy atmosphere, there was an upturn in the capital’s fortunes as Airbnb apartments took off, resulting in Athens becoming a city-break destination for tourists rather than a one-night stop en route to the islands.

A creative younger generation raised during the crisis rediscovered the centre and coexisted with migrants in gritty neighbourhoods such as Exarcheia, Kerameikos and Kypseli. They mixed in the open-air farmers' markets and partied with young Arabs, Africans and European hippies and hipsters in the bars and street carnivals.

"All the [foreign] artists and architects I speak with want to come here," said architect George Tzirtzilakis. "No one ever cared about the Greece of the Olympic Games; its buildings and projects were entirely irrelevant. It was the crisis that shook up Greece and brought it back to the fore."

Now, the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, and Athens municipality are running a pilot scheme whereby some 6,000 refugees awaiting the processing of their asylum claims will be housed in some 1,000 apartments.

The idea is to get refugees out of the pressure-cooker camp environment but this also carries the risk of exposing vulnerable groups to the roaring heroin trade.

READ MORE: The wild will chase away the tame

Friction from older generations of Greeks more used to emigrating than welcoming migrants is already rising in central Athens where the experiment is being applied.

Unlike the cosmopolitan 19th century, when these cities' ethnically mixed diplomatic and trading elites travelled across the region and could communicate in a number of languages, a century of nationalism killed multiculturalism and encouraged xenophobia.

Cities as peripheral holding centres

Athens may become one of a handful of urban migration hubs at the EU's frontline, along with Naples, Beirut and Istanbul, in which Africans, Arabs and Asians settle once they’ve collided with the inner EU's sealed borders.

Οver the next decade, these Mediterranean cities will transform ever faster, as new arrivals fleeing conflict, exclusionary economic policies and climate change make them into temporary homes.

But unlike the cosmopolitan 19th century, when these cities' ethnically mixed diplomatic and trading elites travelled across the region and could communicate in a number of languages, a century of nationalism killed multiculturalism and encouraged xenophobia.

Today's Athenian knows little about his Alexandrian, Khartoumi and Tehrani predecessors, and has imbibed the values of a society dominated by corrupt political and business statism, the Orthodox Church, and a narrative that Greece is inseparably Western and unrelated to the MENA region.

It may not be surprising that Greeks find it difficult to relate to Middle Easterners, but as long as they do so they will remain trapped in the short-termist mindset that plunged them into the economic crisis in the first place.

A society still in a period of deflating expectations could do worse than engage with the migrants on its soil, encourage them to learn Greek or English as a working language, and empower the older generation of Greek-speaking migrants to establish a support and managerial system.

The worst-case scenario is that the best-educated and most polyglot human capital available will be cherry-picked to reinforce Europe's mid-income managerial class. Those who fail to make the cut will be either deported or forced to put together new lives where they are.

They will do so against the crumbling medieval and modernist architecture of Mediterranean countries that were created and formed by Westernising narratives, but discovered along the way that they were not quite Western enough.

Iason Athanasiadis is an award-winning photojournalist who covers the Middle East. He has written this as part of the Reviving Cities project, presenting how the unprecedented arrival of refugees arriving in port cities around the Mediterranean will impact upon each other's identities.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera