Refugees in Greece: ‘We are living in a prison here’

Refugees in a deserted hotel complain of Greece’s lethargic asylum registration process and poor living conditions.

A bankrupt hotel in Greece is now home to hundreds of refugees [Nick Paleologos/SOOC/Al Jazeera]
A bankrupt hotel in Greece is now home to hundreds of refugees [Nick Paleologos/SOOC/Al Jazeera]

Thermopylae, Greece – Akram al-Majidi lifted his left arm to show the skin disfigured by severe burns after a car bomb exploded outside his shop in Baghdad in 2008.

The flesh, once on the outside of his forearm, was pushed to the other side, leaving just a thin layer of scorched skin on top of his radial bone.

Akram, 34, says his life was simple in Iraq. He owned a bakery, preparing special cakes for weddings, birthdays and other occasions.

“I’m left-handed. I wrote, ate, made cakes – all with my left hand,” Akram tells Al Jazeera in his family’s tiny room in a bankrupt and deserted hotel converted into a refugee camp for hundreds of people in Thermopylae, central Greece. 

Akram al-Majidi was wounded in a car bombing that targeted his shop in Baghdad [Nick Paleologos/SOOC/Al Jazeera] 

After receiving death threats earlier this year from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL, also known as ISIS), the Majidis decided to pack their bags and flee to Europe. Four months ago, they arrived in the Aigli Hotel, an abandoned hot springs resort. 

Though they have applied for a relocation programme to get asylum somewhere in Western Europe, the process has moved slowly and they haven’t heard back from the United Nations in months. 

Surrounded by vast mountains, the location remains a popular retreat for Greeks and tourists alike. A German couple swim in the stream on the edge of the hotel grounds. A pair of Syrian children swim nearby, laughing and leaping into the water from the top of a small cliff.

Yet back in the hotel, many residents complain of poor living conditions, overcrowding, inadequate food and little access to healthcare.

The hot springs near the hotel remain a popular tourist destination for Greeks and internationals [Nick Paleologos/SOOC/Al Jazeera]

The forceful smell of sulphur permeates the rooms of the old hotel, which sits about 15 kilometres from the nearest town. The location is difficult for asylum seekers, most of whom are penniless after months in the camp and cannot afford the bus fare or a taxi to town.

Trapped in Greece

Akram lives with his wife and four children in the one hotel room.

He says that in Iraq, local armed groups that later became loyal to ISIL targeted him personally in the attack.

He lifts up photos of his old home in the Iraqi capital. Graffiti scrawled in spray paint across the white wall reads: “The Islamic State [ISIL] remains” and “blood wanted”.

Another photo shows his cake stand on fire as a result of the bombing, with huge plumes of smoke billowing above and nearby cars also set ablaze. 

The al-Majidi family fled from Iraq after receiving death threats from ISIL [Nick Paleologos/SOOC/Al Jazeera] 

Although the Majidi family managed to cross the Mediterranean before the deal between the European Union and Turkey to halt the flow of refugees to Western Europe, they now find themselves bottlenecked in Greece along with another 57,000 refugees and migrants, unable to continue their journeys.

After that deal, countries across the Balkans sealed their borders to refugees and migrants.

In a recent visit to the doctor, Akram was told he needed to continue extensive medical treatment on his forearm.

“But it’s been almost two months and I haven’t had any treatment,” he says.

Enduring the sharp pain of nerve damage and incessant twitching, he is often unable to sleep. “The doctor only gave me painkillers. It’s especially bad at night. I can wait [for registration], but I need treatment now.”

His wife, Eman, who used to be a teacher in Baghdad, says they left their country in search of human rights.

“Tell me. Where are the human rights?” 

Slow registration

Asklipios, a camp administrator who did not provide his last name, says there were 432 registered residents – mostly Syrians – as of late June. The 87-room hotel, he explains, belongs to the local municipality.

There are no permanent doctors, but three nurses work there on a daily basis. “The conditions are good here,” he says plainly, adding that most of the residents are families and almost half are children.

Those who arrived in Greece after the EU-Turkey agreement are left with the options of applying for asylum in Greece or voluntary deportation to Turkey.

Much like in camps across the country, however, residents are frustrated by the long wait to register for asylum while living in difficult humanitarian conditions. Many complain about the food, which is provided by the Greek army.

The Greek government says it is trying to expedite the asylum registration process [Nick Paleologos/SOOC/Al Jazeera]

Greek government spokesperson George Kiritsis says the government wants “to expedite” the asylum application process. 

“There are many people who are in the islands and mainland Greece waiting for their applications to be processed,” he tells Al Jazeera, explaining that the government aims to improve living conditions in the meantime.  

Yet the government’s lethargic pace has prompted criticism. Last week, the European Asylum Support Office expressed concern about the slow pace of asylum registration.

‘We are living in a prison’

Abdulsalem Yousef, who lives in a cramped room with his wife and six children, sustained a head injury from shrapnel in Syria’s Homs before fleeing. From Turkey, he set sail in a crowded dinghy and arrived on a Greek island four months ago.

Lifting his hat to show the large bulbous lump on the back of his head, Abdulsalem explains that he suffers from chronic headaches and has been waiting for weeks to receive medical treatment.

“The doctor only saw me for a few minutes and told me to take Ibuprofen every few hours,” he tells Al Jazeera.

“We are living in a prison here because no one has money and the city is so far away,” he adds. “If you miss the food distribution time, then you have nothing to eat.”

The Greek army is responsible for food distribution in many refugee camps across country [Nick Paleologos/SOOC/Al Jazeera]

A Greek army truck pulls up, stops and reverses towards the food distribution tent. Families come out to receive their rations. Children unsuccessfully plead with soldiers for extra portions.

Taref Zeno, who was an electrician back in Aleppo, held up a small can of powdered milk. “This is supposed to last three days for my whole family. We thought Europe was more humane than this,” he tells Al Jazeera. 

“Turkey made it very easy for us to flee; but then they made a deal that leaves us stuck here.”

‘Hiding refugees’ 

Nasim Lomani, a 35-year-old member of the Athens-based Solidarity Initiative for Political and Economic Refugees, criticises Greece’s policy approach as “based on hiding refugees, [so they] cannot be seen in the public”.

Explaining that most refugee camps are located outside of the city, he says: “This plan is not only anti-refugee because the conditions are horrible … It’s also fake as an idea because it will collapse very soon.”

A group of men sit on plastic lawn chairs in the hotel lobby and argue while they watch the news on an old television. Several children recite the English alphabet in unison in a waiting area turned into an impromptu classroom.

Some residents volunteer and take turns teaching children, as there are no formal classes in the camps [Nick Paleologos/SOOC/Al Jazeera]

Outside, people hang laundry from their balconies under the smouldering summer sun. An old man sits in the stairwell to avoid the sunlight as he reads a book.

Back in his room, Akram tidies up as his wife makes the bunk beds. Solemnly, he says they have no choice but to continue living here for the time being.

“My house is gone. My store is gone. My car is gone. There’s nothing left for me in Baghdad. And it’s worse than the days of the American occupation,” he concludes.

Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_

Camp administrators say nearly half of the residents are children [Nick Paleologos/SOOC/Al Jazeera]
Source : Al Jazeera


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