Plight of Greece's migrants worsens

Fire destroys large parts of a camp for illegal migrants, leaving many homeless.

    The Patras camp in Greece houses about 1,200 illegal migrants  [Photo: Danylo Hawaleshka]

    Ramzan can not say exactly how old he is. He figures he is about 23. As an illegal migrant from Afghanistan trying to live under the radar in Greece, celebrating birthdays takes a backseat to simply surviving another day.

    On Wednesday, Ramzan's already difficult life took a marked turn for the worse.

    Shortly after 7pm local time, he and a friend were talking within the confines of a shantytown in the Greek port city of Patras, situated in the northwest of the Peloponnese, when his friend suddenly said: "Hey, yo, yo, look down there! The tent is burning!"

    The tent in question was actually more of a hut. Regardless, Ramzan's house was on fire and there was little he could do to save it. He had a small glass container to ferry water, but the fire was too big to contain.

    The fire razed 65 huts in the sprawling settlement of rudimentary homes of corrugated cardboard, plastic sheeting and scrap wood, that has for more than a decade sheltered countless illegal migrants fleeing the Middle East and central Asia for Europe.

    While no one was injured, more than 400 illegal migrants lost the roof over their heads right in the middle of Greece's cold, wet winter.

    "There is absolutely nothing left of my house," Ramzan says. "We have nothing to eat, nothing to wear, and nothing to put on when we sleep."

    For the past four months, Ramzan had been in the Patras camp, biding his time.

    Like most of those living there, he is waiting for an opportune moment to stowaway on one of the many transport trucks which daily board the ferries plying the Ionian Sea bound for the Adriatic and various Italian ports.

    Ramzan had previously made it as far as England, where he lived for four years before being deported to Afghanistan.

    Heavy burden

    Almost 48 hours after the devastation, aid workers and illegal migrants told Al Jazeera that Greek government officials had yet to respond to the practical needs of those left homeless.

    "Last night I slept on the road; tonight I will sleep on the road," says Irfan, a 14-year-old Afghan who has lived in the camp for one month. "I need a home."

    The Greek government generally takes a dim view of illegal migrants.

    As one of the handful of nations on the European Union's periphery, Greece shoulders a disproportionately heavy burden when it comes to coping with the constant influx of refugees.

    Still, the Hellenic nation has done little to change the fact that it has an abysmal record for granting migrants asylum, typically offering it to less than one per cent of those who seek it.

    So when disaster strikes, it is often aid agencies like the Greek chapter of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and the Hellenic Red Cross that are forced to respond to the urgent need with what limited resources they can muster.

    Seeking shelter

    After Wednesday's fire MSF, with the help of the Red Cross and other volunteers, says it handed out 450 sleeping bags.

    The agency, whose makeshift medical clinic was razed by the fire, also set up a tent to meet the medical and psycho-social needs of the camp's inhabitants.

    "The fire was a big disaster," says Yorgos Karagiannis, MSF's head of mission in Patras.

    Karagiannis says there are two theories behind what caused the fire: either a gas canister used for cooking exploded, or it was an electrical short-circuit caused by the haphazard wiring the camp's inhabitants rig to steal electricity from the surrounding apartment buildings.

    Whatever the cause, the blaze led desperate migrants to seek shelter in half-completed apartment buildings currently under construction around the camp.

    Others crowded into the already-crowded huts that were still standing.

    "They are really packed in, but they could not do it any other way," Christos Karapiperis, a social worker with the Hellenic Red Cross, says.

    Local anger

    It took 18 firefighters and seven fire trucks two hours to douse the blaze, which destroyed between one-quarter and one-third of the camp.

    Efforts to bring the fire under control were marred by a few local residents who taunted firefighters by shouting that they should allow the camp to burn to the ground.

    "It was quite shocking to hear," Karagiannis says.

    Many local residents are concerned that the camp serves as a magnet for crime.

    "People are tired and angry by this situation with the immigrants," Karagiannis says.

    "They have their reasons, which most of the time are not connected with reality that these people are dirty, that they bring diseases, those kinds of stereotypes."

    Karagiannis says that as the neighbourhood watched the camp grow over the years, locals have worried that "these people pose a threat to their families" and the fire provided "a good opportunity to yell at them".

    Underage migrants

    Since July, the camp's population has swelled by more than 50 per cent, and now totals about 1,200 predominately Afghan males, many no more than boys, according to MSF.

    Many illegal migrants from Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan end up in Greece [EPA]
    According to Unicef, more than half of the 27 million inhabitants of Afghanistan are under 18.

    Last July, Radhika Coomaraswamy, a special representative of the UN secretary-general for children and armed conflict, said that the children of Afghanistan are increasingly used by "armed groups, including the Taliban, as combatants, porters of munitions, informants and in some cases as carriers of improvised explosive devices".

    Coomaraswamy also spoke of the "worrisome allegations about sexual violence against boys by armed actors" within the war-torn nation.

    Little wonder then that on Friday, many of the 50 or so homeless Afghans standing around shivering in the drizzling rain were, like Irfan, underage.

    "I need the help of the government," the boy said, struggling with his rudimentary English.

    Asked how he felt, he replied: "I don't feel any good things."

    'Just another obstacle'

    Last summer, migrants were able to quickly bring under control a similar blaze with fire extinguishers that MSF says it had placed at strategic points throughout the camp. This time they were not so lucky.

    "For the refugees, it's just another obstacle" says the Red Cross's Karapiperis.

    On the day after the fire, the municipality of Patras pledged 20,000 Euros to the relief effort, to be administered by the Red Cross and earmarked for tents, clothes and medical supplies, Zois Marinos, a spokesman for the city, said.

    Karagiannis says he heard that the Greek government plans to find a place nearby to relocate the refugees.

    "But under what status, how and when, we do not have this information," he says.

    A source requesting anonymity confirmed that this was indeed the case, saying that the Greek interior ministry intends to move the inhabitants of the camp to an abandoned sports complex to the south of the port.

    Asked what would happen if the illegal migrants should refuse to move, the source said: "I am afraid they do not have any other choice. Their camp has been destroyed."

    Government inaction

    Almost 24 hours after the blaze had broken out, and with darkness at hand, no government help was apparent in the camp, Karagiannis said.

    "We do not know what to expect, but right now the situation is the same as one hour after the fire," he said, standing amid blackened ruins.

    "Nothing has changed here. Maybe we will see something more practical in the coming hours, but so far nothing."

    It seems as if government officials prefer to ignore migrants, afraid that offering assistance could somehow be construed as legitimising their legal status within Greece, Karapiperis says.

    "If the local authorities provided the refugees with tents, they would in a way be officially recognising the situation," he says.

    More than 48 hours after the fire, the air was still thick with the reek of charred wood. An acrid stench, perhaps caused by melted plastic, irritated the throats of those standing around.

    A bulldozer had earlier plowed debris from the fire to the side of the camp, where the homeless now scoured for anything useful that had somehow survived the conflagration.

    Someone nearby hammered away at a singed hut, trying to repair the damage before it rained any harder.

    Water from fire hoses had turned the camp's ground to mud, a problem only exacerbated by the heavy rain that followed.

    The day after the fire, Ramzan says a policeman he asked for help, had told him that someone would provide him with clothes and a blanket.

    "And I said, 'but the blanket doesn't stop the rain.' The police said he can not do anything."

    Now, feeling "very cold and very wet" and with only six Euros in his pocket, Ramzan is still waiting for answers.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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