Refugees in Greece reflect on another year of waiting

More than 60,000 asylum seekers are stuck in Greece due to closed borders and the EU-Turkey accord on refugees.

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    An Afghan refugee jumps off an overcrowded raft on the Greek island of Lesbos [File: Yannis Behrakis/Reuters]
    An Afghan refugee jumps off an overcrowded raft on the Greek island of Lesbos [File: Yannis Behrakis/Reuters]

    Athens, Greece - Closed borders, racism, xenophobic attacks, rejected asylum applications, poverty and lengthy waits.

    These experiences are what many refugees and migrants in Greece say defined 2017 for them.

    More than 60,000 refugees and migrants are trapped in Greece due to sealed borders across the so-called Balkan route and the March 2016 deal between Turkey and the European Union, which was sculpted to stem the flow of displaced people to Europe.

    That deal has been roundly condemned by rights groups and watchdogs.

    More than 15,000 refugees and migrants have been confined to Greek islands by a government policy that bars them from moving to the mainland until their asylum procedures have been completed.

    Although arrivals sharply decreased after the EU-Turkey deal, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) statistics say that more than 170,317 people made the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean Sea in 2017.

    At least 3,081 died or went missing along the way.

    Speaking to Al Jazeera, some refugees in Greece explained that they no longer feel welcome, while others said they have started to build their lives from scratch.

    Masood Qahar, 40, Afghanistan

    Masood Qahar, 40, fled Afghanistan after receiving death threats [Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera] 

    A lot of refugees have been arrested and put in jail. Greece has been rejecting refugees [asylum requests]. People are living in the streets; they have a bad situation.

    Before, they were telling refugees to come and apply for asylum [in Europe].

    Now, people are not getting asylum - it is taking a long time and many people are getting negative [replies to their requests], especially single men.

    I lived in a tent for one year and six months. Now I'm in a container, but in one container there are five people. It's a bad situation inside.

    There is a heater, but it doesn't work. In the winter, it's cold. In the summer, there is no air conditioner. If you ask for a blanket, they [camp authorities] have just one answer: 'We don't have one.'

    They [Greek authorities] have been moving me to different camps all the time. It's because I've protested for the rights of refugees. It's like jail. You don't have rights. We aren't eating the food.

    Yesterday, I opened the food and it smelled bad - it was two days old. We threw it in the garbage. If you tell them you're human and not to give you bullsh*t food, they tell you to leave.

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    If you think about the situation in Greece, there are economic problems.

    The Greek people also don't have money. If the educated people from Greece don't have jobs, how can I expect refugees to find work?

    But we are hard workers. Now we are just collecting rubbish, working illegally for little money - three or four euros a day.

    First, [Europe] loved refugees. Now they hate refugees. They are trying to force refugees to leave this country. So, we see that we don't have a future here.

    I've tried many times to leave Greece. First, I tried to go to Macedonia in 2016. Second, I tried to leave Patras [to Italy]. Police arrested me for two nights, didn't give me food and beat me a lot. I've also tried to leave from the airport.

    Two years ago, when I first arrived, no one asked if I'm really a refugee and who I am. Now, if you walk in the street, there are a lot of people treating you like sh*t.

    Mahmoud al-Zaidy, 21, Iraq 

    Mahmoud al-Zaidy, 21, fled Iraq after working as a war photographer [Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera]

    I've been in Greece for a year and a half. I was working as a photographer in Iraq, and I was covering the war as the ISIL entered the situation.

    I left after I was close to a car bombing. I wasn't hurt, but that was why I chose to go.

    I went to Turkey, but I wasn't happy with the life there. I decided to come to Europe.

    I had decided to go to Germany, but when I came to Greece I was happy with the country and the Greek people.

    I didn't feel that they were racist or sectarian.

    I started studying English and Greek, and then I met someone who invited me to come to City Plaza [a refugee squat in Athens].

    I made good relations here. The Greek people have been good with me, and I haven't felt any racism or discrimination, so I decided to continue my life here.

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    I've applied to asylum for here, and I want to live in Greece.

    The only problem here is the work. It's very hard to find work, and especially as a photographer. It's also hard because I don't speak English well and I don't speak much Greek.

    For me, I'm not scared of returning to Iraq, but I don't have a future there.

    That's why I decided to leave. The last few years have been very hard in Iraq, especially since ISIL came.

    I was only 18 years when that started. I don't like war or violence. That's not for me, and working as a photographer in war isn't my role.

    I want to continue my work. Now, I'm starting over, so it's hard to begin from scratch. The situation is very good in City Plaza.

    It's a place for refugees to start building their lives again. If it wasn't for City Plaza, maybe I'd be sleeping in the streets.

    Ali Jaffari, 33, Pakistan

    Ali Jaffari, 33, hopes to be reunited with his wife in Switzerland [Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera]

    I've been in Greece for two years. I came with my wife and two boys. They are three and five years old. I haven't seen any good changes for refugees in the last two years.

    There are thousands of refugees facing difficulties during this winter season. I can feel their pain because I have lived the same situation. Last year, it was damn cold [in the camps], living in the tents.

    I was a member of a political party for the [Hazara Shia] community in Pakistan. I had a good life. Why did I escape?

    I was under attack [by armed groups]. I decided there was no more hope to live in my city [Quetta].

    I knew we would face difficulties [coming to Europe].

    The European Union-Turkey deal is against humanity. I feel very sad.

    I've lost two years of my life - if anyone gives up two years of their life, it's a very valuable amount of time. I could've done many things.

    The only problem here is the financial crisis and the job opportunities are very low; not only for the refugees but also for the Greek people.

    My expectations to find a job are not very high. I've even collected recyclables from the rubbish and tried to resell it. I would stay in Greece if there were opportunities.

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    I sent my wife to Switzerland. Right now, I'm waiting for reunification to join her.

    It's taken two years to get my asylum interview. I'm always thinking of how to get out of this situation. 

    I want to be independent, stand on my own two feet and have a good future for my children.

    But I'm sorry to say it seems like there is no possibility for that in Greece.

    A few people here [in Greece] are racist and don't like refugees. Everywhere there are good and bad people.

    When I first came to Athens, I was in the Elliniko camp. I lived in a tent with my family for months. It was very difficult for us.

    Later, I moved to another camp. Eventually, I got a space here in City Plaza [squat].

    The government isn't doing anything but making camps, where it's very cold and bad.

    In City Plaza, it's a big change, and they treat the refugees well.

    This makes refugees feel like they're in a home. It gives us hope that we can still fight.

    It's a good place, safe for the children, it's clean and we get food. It's much better than the camps.

    I wish the Greek government and the EU would open up the empty buildings for refugees living in the camps.

    Karime Qias, 17, and Shafiqa Qias, 21, Afghanistan

    Karime Qias, 17, recently left Lesbos with her family, arrving in Athens [Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera]

    Karime: We camped outside the [municipality] for several nights [to protest in Lesbos]. We had a lot of NGOs coming to talk to us [in Lesbos], but they didn't do anything for us.

    They are using [refugees' cases] for funding. But they didn't find us a place for us to live [outside of the camps].

    There were also lawyers who saw us sleeping outside, but nobody helped.

    Every night [in the camps] there was fighting. Many people have [developed] mental health problems.

    The Greek government has created a situation where refugees [of different nationalities] fight each other.

    They divide us by category, culture, language - this is a political game.

    Shafiqa: When we were in Lesbos [for three months before coming to Athens], we had to fight for everything. Every day the situation was getting worse for refugees in [Lesbos]. We learned what the political fight meant. 

    We didn't think that Europe was like this. We do not want to stay in Greece. We are very happy that we left Lesbos, but we want to continue [to elsewhere]. Maybe we could go to Canada, or if not, Finland.

    We have many hopes for the future.

    Wherever we end up, we want to find a home for our family.

    I promise that this time next year you will find us in a much better place.

    *These interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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