Athens, Greece – Booths and tents of political parties fill Syntagma square in the heart of Athens trying to woo voters for Sunday’s general election.
It is difficult to imagine that only two months ago some 700 people – including 130 children – camped out on the same pavement opposite Greece’s parliament, defying cold and rain with some refusing food, asking to be allowed to seek asylum elsewhere in Europe where they can find shelter and dignity.
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They were Syrian refugees who had fled a deadly civil war in their homeland, only to face appalling living conditions in Greece, Abdul Darwish, one of the organisers of the Syntagma protest, told Al Jazeera.
The eastern borders of Greece have traditionally been a major point of entry for refugees seeking to escape war. Figures published by Greek police indicate that 31,158 Syrian refugees entered Greece in 2014, compared to 8,517 in 2013.
Once in Greece, they find a broken immigration and asylum system.
Most want to travel to northern Europe but cannot do so legally because of the EU regulation known as the Dublin System, requiring refugees to seek protection in the country they reach first.
Hard times for all
Greece recognises that Syrians arriving here are in need of immediate protection and their deportation is suspended, irrespective of their legal status.
We are humans, not animals. We want a future, we want to work and reunite with our families. I escaped the prison of Syria to find myself trapped in another prison in Greece.
However, Greece’s prolonged economic crisis has frayed the country’s social fabric, with almost four million people unemployed, creating increased hostility towards immigrants. Syrians avoid applying for asylum in Greece, knowing while it offers some protection against deportation, it would provide no opportunity of social integration.
Maria Stavropoulou, director of the Greek Asylum Service, explained to Al Jazeera that granting travel documents to non-asylum seekers violates the Schengen agreement.
“The Syrians do not wish to stay in Greece, but we cannot help them if they are not registered asylum seekers. Even in that case, the travel documents would only allow them to travel to other European countries, not to immigrate or work in the EU – they can stay legally in the EU only for a maximum three months.”
Activists and humanitarian organisations have urged Greece to invoke the Temporary Protection Directive, which would grant all Syrians a residence permit, giving them not only the right to work but also to healthcare and housing. This mechanism could put Greece in a much better negotiating position, and it could put pressure on other EU countries to resettle refugees.
“There was much misinformation on the issue of Syrian refugees,” said Stavropoulou. “Once we explained to people the legal framework, they realised that going through the formal process was their only option. In December we had 190 applications of asylum filed by Syrians compared to 74 filed in November.”
The protest at Syntagma attracted attention with members of parliament expressing solidarity and people bringing gifts of food and blankets. The government announced it would issue documents to travel to other EU countries, and committed to providing housing, food and healthcare for asylum applicants.
Although most agreed to apply, on the night of December 15 police raided the square and arrested 51 people. Of the 700 protesters, 160 were transferred by the mayor of Athens to four hotels located in the city centre. A month and a half later, they face eviction as the municipality has yet to pay the hotel owners.
Lives in limbo
At Asyrmatos Park in Aghios Dimitrios – a working class neighbourhood in southeast Athens – the sound of children laughing rings across the cold winter morning. Broken plastic tables with semi rotten vegetables and oranges are piled outside the ageing concrete building.
A smell of food fills the air at the entrance. Mattresses and blankets are lined up on the floor taking most of the space around a wood-burning stove that heats the room. Some 60 Syrian refugees, including women and young children are stranded here – waiting for their asylum applications to be processed, while dreaming of a better life in northern Europe.
They were transferred here from Syntagma square by members of solidarity groups who, together with the municipality, provided the refugees with food, blankets and mattresses.
Mohammad, a math student who wants to become a teacher, saw his dreams shattered by Syria’s civil war. He paid smugglers in Turkey 1,200 euros ($1,350) to bring him to the EU. He survived a perilous three-day sea voyage before being intercepted by the Greek coastguard on the shores of Farmakonisi island. He said he hopes to travel to Germany with his two sisters and his ageing father who are staying with him.
“We participated in the protest of Syntagma to demand our right to leave,” he said. “We are humans, not animals. We want a future, we want to work and reunite with our families. I escaped the prison of Syria to find myself trapped in another prison in Greece. Every day I spend here, I feel that some part of me is dying inside.”
Afaf arrived in Greece four months ago. She is 34 years old, a trained psychologist from Damascus and the mother of a young boy.
“Life was good in Syria but then everything went crazy,” she said. “I sold my house and I paid a smuggler 3,000 euros [$3,360] to take me to Italy hoping to reach the Netherlands. But the smuggler sunk our boat on the shore of Cos … I have applied for asylum but it’s been more than a month now that we live here. My son does not smile any more – it pains me so much.”
Need for a European solution
While Syrian refugees are caught in the cracks of the system, Greek politicians, including acting Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, rushed to make political gains of the situation ahead of the election, equating refugees with “terrorists” after the January 7 massacre at the office of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.
Although generally sympathetic to the Syrians’ plight, some Greeks have questioned why they deserve help from Greece given the economic hardships of the country.
“It’s a big hypocrisy of Europe,” Nikitas Kanakis of the Greek NGO Medecins du Monde told Al Jazeera.
“The European Union has no clear policy on how to deal with the influx of refugees in its backyard, which is the European south. The trafficking industry is thriving on its sea borders and the EU is paying huge amounts to Greece to ensure that the problem does not reach the north.”
The 2014 Midas Migration and Detention Report – published by the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy – said from 2008 to 2013 Greece spent almost 500 million euros ($560m) on immigration policy and border control.
Much of it was spent on tightening border controls, which included building the controversial 12.5-kilometre long barbed-wire fence along the border with Turkey.
“We need to finally start the debate on equal distribution of responsibility and asylum seekers among EU countries. It’s a chance for Europe to honour its humanitarian values, rather than investing in building a fortress on its borders to keep the problem off its turf,” said Kanakis.