Refugees in Greece hopeless as Europe eyes more returns
While Europe tightens restrictions on refugees, asylum seekers in Greece say there is no future in the country.
Athens, Greece – Heat radiated from the pavement on a summer day at the Eleonas refugee camp in an industrial area on the outskirts of the Greek capital.
Wearing a flowing shirt, Manazza Fatima wrapped a salmon-coloured scarf loosely around her head.
The 40-year-old Pakistani asylum seeker motioned to a two-person tent across the street from the camp’s entrance, explaining that she has slept there for several nights with her husband and 16-month-old daughter.
Bored children mulled around the nearby security post at the entrance. People coming and going flashed their identification cards to the guards.
Fatima lifted her daughter’s leg, revealing a tiny limb swollen and reddened from mosquito bites.
“They say they don’t have any open places for us,” she told Al Jazeera, referring to the camp administration.
Pulling out her asylum applicant card, she said: “They won’t help us here, they won’t let us sleep inside and they won’t give us any food or formula for the baby.”
We see that with the lack of support for Greece, and the fact that more and more people are gathering in Greece, the system is breaking down again.
Like many refugees and migrants across the country and on its islands, Fatima and her family, who have been in Greece for two and a half years, are still waiting for a final decision on their asylum application.
Since borders were slammed shut across the Balkans in early 2016, many determined to move on to Western Europe were left with few options, beyond resorting to smugglers.
In a bid to deter yet more people from going west, Germany, Hungary and other countries have in recent weeks called for asylum seekers who initially landed in Greece to be returned to the Mediterranean country.
Yet in Greece, asylum seekers and humanitarian groups have expressed concern, saying that the country is struggling to provide accommodation and services to those who are already here.
Late last month, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said a deal was reached to return refugees and migrants from Germany to Greece and Spain.
As part of the agreement, Germany was supposed to remove restrictions on thousands of family reunifications cases that would allow separated family members to reunite in that country.
And last week, Hungary’s stridently anti-refugee prime minister, Viktor Orban, called for undocumented migrants who passed through Greece to be returned to the country en masse, even if they were not initially registered there.
“We only know one solution: close the borders,” he said during a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin.
‘System is breaking down’
According to Europe’s so-called Dublin rules, asylum seekers should file their applications in the first member country they enter.
Kyriakos Giaglis, Greece’s country director for the Danish Refugee Council, explained that previous attempts to return asylum seekers to Greece were “never really” implemented.
“It is, of course, a cause for concern. The criteria of it aren’t very clear from a legal point of view,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Here in Greece, all of the sites are overcrowded, and we have very bad situations in most of the sites,” he added, explaining that people continue to sleep in informal or communal spaces in packed camps.
“We don’t know where they would be returned.”
Eva Cosse, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, said Greece has improved living conditions in the camps since closed borders stranded tens of thousands in the country in early 2016.
Nonetheless, she said: “We see that with the lack of support for Greece, and the fact that more and more people are gathering in Greece, the [asylum] system is breaking down again.”
She told Al Jazeera that most camps and accommodation centres on Greece’s mainland are full or over capacity.
Largely confined to camps and with few options for work in Greece, which has endured nearly a decade of economic crisis and austerity, many see their future elsewhere in Europe.
Inside Eleonas, several rows of containers serve as temporary homes for its residents.
There are small, makeshift gardens by porches hobbled together from old doors and weather-worn scrap wood.
“I love you, mom,” reads graffiti on a barrier encircling the camp.
Masoud Qahar, a 41-year-old Afghan, boiled a pot of tea on the stove in his cramped container. Sat on the floor, he spoke softly, hoping not to wake his sleeping roommate.
Arguing that returning more refugees and migrants to Greece would be a disaster, he said: “We have no future here.”
At the time of publication, the Greek Ministry of Migration had not replied to Al Jazeera’s request for a comment.
‘Warehouse of souls’
According to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), there were nearly 60,000 refugees and migrants in Greece as of June.
Fleeing war and economic havoc, thousands continue to reach the country by land and sea each month, the agency said.
“UNHCR continues to call on the Greek government to ease overcrowding and improve conditions and services, including through speeding up of transfers and identifying adequate accommodation,” Boris Cheshirkov, a spokesperson for the agency, told Al Jazeera.
Hoping to quell anger among politicians and locals on several Aegean islands, the Greek government has promised that asylum seekers returned from elsewhere in Europe will not return to the islands.
Greek Migration Minister Dimitris Vitsas recently decried Austrian Chancellor Sebastien Kurz’s demands for tougher measures to prevent irregular migration on the EU’s external frontiers and Orban’s call for mass returns to Greece.
“As a government, we will not accept turning the country into a warehouse of souls,” he said in an interview with Greek radio, as reported by the daily Ekathimerini.
“There are European leaders who are trying to impose a policy of autocracy, a policy of fortress Europe,” he added, referring to Kurz and Orban.
Back at Eleonas, Fatima stood in front of her tent, her daughter clutching her leg as dump trucks departing from nearby factories whizzed past.
An empty UNHCR bucket, where she washes their clothes when they can get their hands on detergent, sat next to her tent.
They are barred from working while they wait for their final asylum decision, so simple items such as baby formula and detergent are rare luxuries.
With distress sketched across her face, she said that she doubts Greece could handle more asylum seekers – especially at a time when people continue to make dangerous journeys to reach the country.
“We are sleeping outside in the rain and the heat,” she said. “Every time we ask for help, they say there are problems or there’s nothing they can do.”