Greek refugee camps: ‘Children grow sicker every day’
More than 3,600 refugees live in poor conditions in abandoned Olympic stadiums and an old airport in Athens.
Athens, Greece – Clothes and blankets hang-dry from the windows of two abandoned Olympic sports venues and on the chain-linked fence surrounding the perimeter of the Elliniko refugee camp on the outskirts of the Greek capital.
As the United Nations commemorates World Refugee Day on Monday, many Elliniko residents say they are struggling with overcrowding, unsanitary food and a lack of adequate medical services amid soaring illnesses in the camp.
More than 3,600 people from Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Syria and elsewhere are stuck in the Elliniko camp in three impromptu sites: the baseball and hockey stadiums, as well as the arrival hall in the deserted airport
A sign at the parking lot’s entrance reads: “Hockey. Baseball. Refugees.”
While dozens queue for the food distribution in the hockey stadium, 15-year-old Marzia Kamali holds up a putrid portion of half-cooked rice topped with a few lentils and peas.
Along with her parents and younger sister, she fled Afghanistan and arrived in Elliniko five months ago.
They sleep on thin blankets on the concrete floor of a crowded corridor with dozens of others, while many of the camp’s small children lie under the shade on the metal terraces when the tents get too hot.
In most camps, including Elliniko, the Greek army provides food, while the government is responsible for medical services. Numerous aid organisations also provide support.
Earlier this week, Marzia was sent to the hospital for what she says was food poisoning.
‘Not for humans’
“We become very dizzy when we open the food,” she says of the odor. “It’s not for humans.”
She continues: “We just want the borders to open so we can go. We didn’t come here for food. We escaped from the Taliban, and we want to go somewhere to get some peace.”
Because people waiting for asylum applications to be processed are barred from working, Marzia’s family and most others have completely run out of money, leaving them unable to buy their own food from supermarkets.
“All the children grow sicker every day,” she adds, arguing that authorities have failed to provide enough milk for the camp’s high number of young children. “When we came here… we saw that Afghan people are not [treated as] humans.”
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More than 57,000 refugees and migrants are bottlenecked in Greece, largely due to Macedonia’s border closure in March following an agreement between the European Union and Turkey to send many of those fleeing war and economic devastation back to Turkey.
First suggested as a refugee site by the Greek government in December 2015, officials have stated their intent to clear out Elliniko in the near future.
As the summer day wears on, people try to sleep in the dozens of camping tents that fill each of the four, larger UN tents standing in the hockey stadium’s parking lot.
On the hockey pitch, young Afghan boys fly a kite under the blazing sun, while others kick a football back and forth.
The kite flies high, flutters against the afternoon sky and nosedives into the terraces as two children bicker over its handle.
In April, a 17-year-old Afghan girl, who had previously suffered from rheumatic fever, died in the camp, prompting residents to accuse the government of partial responsibility.
Residents of the camp say access to better healthcare and more sanitary living conditions could prevent more potential deaths, as well as slow the spread of illnesses in Elliniko.
Speaking to the parliament last month, Yiannis Mouzalas, immigration policy minister, said the government plans to evict refugees from Elliniko, local media reported.
“Conditions at Elliniko are not unsuitable, but they are not good and certainly not the conditions we should have for refugees and migrants,” he said.
A Greek government spokesperson for refugee affairs did not reply to Al Jazeera’s request for a comment.
Acknowledging the government’s efforts to make living conditions better, Stella Nanou of UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, argues that Elliniko’s three sites ought to be further improved “or there needs to be new solutions for accommodation”.
Inside the hockey stadium, large mounds of rubbish dot the corridors and dirty water oozes from under the washrooms’ doors.
‘We didn’t invite you to come to Greece’
Mohamed Asif, a 19-year-old who English teacher from Kabul, made the one-month journey to Greece five months ago.
Hoping to make it to France, he was sent back to the Elliniko camp after being turned away at the Macedonian border.
The young man has requested dental treatment for an abscessed tooth for several weeks, he says, opening his mouth and pointing to the infected molar.
Overwhelmed by the number of people in need of attention, the camp’s medical staff told him to simply take Ibuprofen and wait at least two months for treatment.
“I just need it pulled,” he says, shaking his head disappointedly and adding that he cannot afford to pay for the operation on his own. “We don’t have money to even get water.”
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A group of children sit on the floor and study the English alphabet behind him, as other residents restlessly mull around the stadium.
Nineteen-year-old Sweeta Yousafzai, who made the trek from Afghanistan with her two sisters earlier this year, says requests for better food have fallen on deaf ears.
“They say to go and buy [food], and that ‘We didn’t invite you to come to Greece.'”
Both Sweeta and Mohamed have received one-year permits to stay in Greece, but they worry that they will be made to live in similar conditions even if they are moved from Elliniko.
‘More children will die’
In a third-floor room in the hockey stadium, 52-year-old Abdul Hakim, who was an office manager in Afghanistan’s Mazar-i-Sharif, says that his asthma has worsened due to the overcrowding and dirty conditions.
“We had good lives in Afghanistan, but we escaped from the Taliban’s killing,” he tells Al Jazeera, pointing to the corner where he, his wife and six children now sleep.
“Now you see the situation we are living in here.”
Around the stadium, tents sit closely to one another inside and outside other buildings. A family sits around a small fire, cooking on a frying pan.
Above them, an abandoned restaurant is crowned with a sign advertising Heineken beer.
Nasim Lomani, a 35-year-old member of the Athens-based Solidarity Initiative for Political and Economic Refugees activist group, came to Europe from Afghanistan as a child refugee 23 years ago.
Criticising the Greek government’s decision to put camps on the city’s outskirts, Lomani says that there are more than 4,000 empty buildings in Athens which could serve as accommodation for refugees.
“We never believed there is a refugee crisis; there is a European crisis to manage refugees,” Lomani tells Al Jazeera.
“If [the government] wants to continue hiding them, they’ll have to close the doors to the camps – and then you have another kind of problem with sicknesses. More children will die.”
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_