Why some refugees in Greece are being driven to suicide

‘This is like a zoo and we’re like animals,’ says one refugee as others say a ‘mental war’ is being waged on them.

Kids at Elliniko camp greece
Around half of the refugees in Greece are women and children, say aid groups [Kelly Lynn Lunde/Al Jazeera]

Elliniko, Greece – Mohamed Asif Ostadazimi points to his paintings and sketches, explaining each one. We are in an old supply room that he has turned into an art studio in the Elliniko refugee camp in a suburb of the Greek capital, Athens.

“This one is like Jackson Pollock’s work,” he says, motioning in the direction of a canvas covered in a kaleidoscope of colours. Pollock is his favourite artist, and Ostadazimi vows to one day visit his home.

Lifting an accusatory finger towards a canvas that depicts a woman’s eyes peering from behind a fence, he says: “That is here [in the camp].”

Then he walks towards a table under a dust-coated window and picks up a charcoal sketch of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian Kurdish refugee child whose lifeless body washed up on a Turkish shore in September 2015. This one, his face suggests, doesn’t require any explanation.

Ostadazimi, a reed-thin, 38-year-old artist, arrived in Greece, with his wife and three young children, in early 2016, after fleeing Afghanistan‘s Herat.

For more than a year, the five of them have lived in the camp. Five birthday parties in a small two-person camping tent. Feigning patience in the food queues. Navigating the rubbish mounds dotted across the asphalt car park. Haemorrhaging their life savings until they eventually disappeared.

Mohamed Asif Ostadazimi lives in the Elliniko refugee camp with his wife and three children [Kelly Lynn Lunde/Al Jazeera]
Mohamed Asif Ostadazimi lives in the Elliniko refugee camp with his wife and three children [Kelly Lynn Lunde/Al Jazeera]

The Ostadazimi family is among hundreds of refugees and migrants – more than half of them children – living in the camp in a pair of abandoned Olympic stadiums and the deserted domestic arrivals terminal of an airport.

With borders closed and the asylum process moving at a lumbering pace, humanitarian conditions have improved only marginally in the past year. Most of Greece’s more than 62,000 refugees and migrants have no choice but to wait or to hire dubious smugglers to take them elsewhere in Europe.

A story of displacement

As the sun starts to descend behind the bleachers of the hockey field, Ostadazimi recounts a tumultuous life of displacement, almost three decades of fleeing violence, of going back and forth between Afghanistan and Pakistan, of clandestinely scurrying across borders to avoid hawk-eyed patrolmen.

The sky’s almost violent auburn glow gradually gives way to a dull Mediterranean lavender.

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

From the window of Ostadazimi’s workshop, a man in a thobe is visible. He stands on the stadium seating and, through cupped hands, sings the call to prayer. Down on the pitch, a teenager in a football jersey punts a ball over his friends before heeding the call and jogging in the direction of the makeshift mosque.

Ostadazimi says several Greek news programmes broadcast his interviews on television after he held an exhibition of his artwork in Athens last autumn. People from across Greece wrote him letters. None of it translated into financial assistance, he laments.

With no income, his family has become like most camp residents – completely dependent on the United Nations, the Greek government and aid groups for survival.

To break the monotony of life in the camp, Ostadazimi has been teaching art to some of the children who live here. There is no playground, and, apart from a few who attend lessons hosted by Save the Children, most have no access to formal education.

Ostadazimi gives art lessons to children in the refugee camp [Kelly Lynn Lunde/Al Jazeera]
Ostadazimi gives art lessons to children in the refugee camp [Kelly Lynn Lunde/Al Jazeera]

At one point, he had dozens of students. Now, however, he complains that only three remain – the rest set off with their families in the hope of making it to Italy by boat or of being smuggled across the heavily guarded Macedonian border. He needs the students as much as they need him.

Ostadazimi insists he can handle the constant waiting, but the expression on his face suggests the vast bureaucracies of the state and non-state refugee agencies have exhausted him. His wife and children have grown despondent from the wait and the stagnant nature of life in the camp, he says.

He recently had a seven-hour interview with Greek asylum authorities, but fears he will have to wait several more months for the next one. “The camp is better than before,” he says, referring to the cold winter months. “I often think I will die in the camp. Jail and refugee camps are the same.”

A ‘mental war on refugees’

Although arrivals by boat have decreased drastically since the European Union and Turkey reached a deal to stem the flow of refugees and migrants in March 2016, dinghies still set sail from Turkish shores several times a day.

Asylum seekers who arrived after last year’s deal are confined to the islands and can only move on to mainland Greece with permission from the authorities. More than 14,000 people are still stuck on five islands, according to the Greek government’s statistics.

According to the activist group Are You Syrious?, 12 Syrian Kurds in the Moria camp on Lesbos are on hunger strike against the Greek government’s rejection of their asylum applications and the poor living conditions.

The death toll in the Mediterranean Sea recently reached 1,074, according to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR). Of that total, more than 150 were children. Last Monday, a flimsy dinghy from Turkey went under en route to Lesbos and at least 16 people died.

Nasim Lomani, an activist with the Solidarity Initiative for Political and Economic Refugees, argues that isolating refugees and migrants in camps outside of city centres has been counterproductive.

Afghans pray inside the abandoned airport hangar at the Elliniko camp [Kelly Lynn Lunde/Al Jazeera]
Afghans pray inside the abandoned airport hangar at the Elliniko camp [Kelly Lynn Lunde/Al Jazeera]

Lomani, a 37-year-old Afghan who came from Kabul to Greece as a child refugee more than two decades ago, speaks from experience.

“They [Greek authorities] managed to make them feel like they are not humans any more,” he says. “One of the biggest impacts of the EU-Turkey deal is the mental war on the refugees.”


In March, after Germany announced that newly arrived asylum-seekers should be returned to Greece, migration minister Yiannis Mouzalas told the German daily Der Spiegel that the country “can’t bring in a single [additional] refugee”.

“Greece simply has no capacities to cope with additional arrival of refugees,” he said.

Yet in the supply-deprived camps, the seemingly endless wait is not a matter of patience, but of survival.

It has taken its toll on camp residents. According to local media reports and humanitarian groups, there has been a rise in the number of asylum seekers committing and attempting suicide.

A Greek migration ministry spokesperson did not reply to Al Jazeera’s numerous requests for comment on this.

Greek authorities are currently investigating an apparent suicide by a 25-year-old Syrian asylum seeker who hanged himself at the port of Piraeus in March. In April, another Syrian man – Ali Aamer, also 25 years old – set himself ablaze in a camp on the Greek island of Chios. He died a few days later in a hospital in Athens.

Lucy Carrigan, the regional coordinator of communications at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), says there is a dire need for improved mental health programmes in Greece’s camps. “Refugees in Greece have zero control over their lives,” she says.

“The process is dehumanising. These people came to Europe full of hope. They had high expectations. Now they are foundering.”

“If we want to see the number of cases of attempted suicides, suicide and self-harm go down, we need to see dramatic improvement in the resources necessary to move these refugees’ asylum claims through so that they have some resolution and they can regain control over their lives,” Carrigan adds.

‘I don’t have money’

In front of the domestic arrivals terminal, a row of swings is elaborately constructed from pairs of jeans and long-sleeved shirts.

As the sun goes down, the children retreat inside, leaving the car park empty, aside from a camp resident drinking a Heineken in the shadows and an Afghan couple sitting on a curb, a child coughing beneath a cocoon of garments and blankets on the woman’s lap.

The terminal’s interior is a maze of drooping sheets strung up to serve as boundaries between the tents. Proclamations of love are scrawled in Dari across the discoloured walls, next to a misshapen Afghan flag doodled in markers here, a common four-letter English curse word there.

The din of chatter and coughing is occasionally drowned out by laughter from a handful of boys playing rock-paper-scissors beside the makeshift mosque.

Masoud Qahar, 40, sits on a rug outside his one-person tent and estimates that he has seen “maybe 20” suicide attempts since he arrived here more than a year ago. A former logistical officer with NATO who fled Afghanistan after he says he received death threats from the Taliban, Qahar has helped organise protests for better living conditions in the refugee camps.

Masoud Qahar says he left Afghanistan after receiving death threats from the Taliban [Kelly Lynn Lunde/Al Jazeera]
Masoud Qahar says he left Afghanistan after receiving death threats from the Taliban [Kelly Lynn Lunde/Al Jazeera]

Citing poor conditions, lack of education for many children and xenophobic treatment by Greek police and asylum authorities, he argues that many refugees and migrants feel hopeless in the camp.

“Some NGOs are coming to help, but it’s just for two or three days,” he says. “They play with kids, take a lot of pictures of the kids … and they take money for this. A lot of news channels come here and make movies, take pictures, make documentaries. They have a business [profiting from] the refugees.”

He opens the Skype app on his telephone to show how many times he’s attempted to contact an asylum support hotline. Around a dozen calls are followed by the solemn word: “Unanswered.”

Qahar pauses, an austere expression consuming his face: “This is like a zoo, and we’re like animals [to the NGOs and media].”

His only hope is borrowing enough money to hire a smuggler from the western Greek city of Patras to take him by boat to Italy and then by car to France. “But I don’t have money … and nobody is coming [to help] the refugees,” he adds.

‘We’re all leaving this country’

Across town in a hotel turned into refugee accommodation by an aid group, Jamshid Hadary says his life has improved since leaving Elliniko, but that waiting for a reply to their asylum request in Greece is taking its toll on his family.

The 38-year-old father of three points to his wife, who is eight months pregnant, and his two daughters, explaining how their days drag. The Hadary family arrived in Greece more than a year and a half ago. Threats from the Taliban prompted them to pack what they could carry and leave, he explains.

The death threats started after he was approached by Taliban fighters. They demanded that he employ one of their fighters, who would carry out an attack on American soldiers and contractors, for whom Hadary worked installing doors and doing metalwork on their bases. “They said they’d take my daughter if I didn’t do it,” he recalls, pointing at seven-year-old Tayaba.

READ MORE: I listen to refugees and I hear my own story

Hadary, a tall man in a striped shirt and faded blue jeans, with a small bag dangling from his belt loops, recalls arriving at his office a few days later to find only charred remains in its place. Seemingly oblivious – or perhaps desensitised – to the story, Tayaba braids her five-year-old sister’s hair, tugging on it and giggling at intervals.

Along with two of his wife’s cousins, Hadary and his family set off for Europe. They spent a year and a half in Elliniko before an aid group put them up in the hotel across town and provided his younger daughter with much needed medical treatment for respiratory problems. “We can’t go back to Afghanistan, so I think we will try to stay here,” he says, adding that they first planned on applying for asylum in Germany but were unable to keep moving due to closed borders across the Balkans.

Unable to work, however, Hadary doesn’t know how he will manage to make ends meet in Greece. “I’d like people to stand with refugees and for human rights because I couldn’t stand to see people living like we are. We have a bad situation,” he says.

“If European countries think Afghanistan is safe, look at the dead bodies. Look at the beheadings, suicide attacks. This is not safe,” he adds, showing a video on his mobile phone of civilians’ mangled bodies strewn across a Kabul street after a recent attack. “The whole world knows about this.”

Back under the fluorescent lights in Elliniko, Masoud Qahar pours a cup of tea. Every few moments, children step over a dusty row of men’s shoes and into his tent. They ask for ice cream, food, toys. Shaking his head disappointedly, he tells them he has nothing to give and shoos them away.

He looks fatigued. With his hands clasped on his lap, he addresses the Greek government: “Tell your police to leave the borders open for 24 hours [without] arresting refugees [and] we’re all leaving this country.”

Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_

Source: Al Jazeera