Athens, Greece – The police eviction of 143 undocumented refugees and migrants from a disused school building in central Athens has provided the first negative feedback to the three-month-old conservative Greek government’s toughening refugee policy.
About a dozen children were enrolled in local Greek schools, and their sudden disappearance from the classroom raised the ire of their Greek classmates, their parents and their teachers.
“We want our children’s classmates back,” said a statement issued on September 25 by the parents’ association of the 35th and 36th elementary schools of Athens. “Thanks to them, many schools in the centre remained open.”
These two schools nearly shut two years ago because of the falling numbers of students and the government’s efforts to save money by consolidating educational institutions.
The schools’ teachers said in a separate statement: “These are our students … They are Boshed, Mariam, Rashid and Mohammed, and they need to come back to school and to stay in their neighbourhood.”
Some of the evicted asylum seekers had settled as early as 2016. Fed and clothed by charities and local volunteers, they lived outside the state-sanctioned system of government-run camps and European Union-subsidised apartments. They quickly integrated with the local community.
“Our children saw the eviction,” says Dafni Sinani, a psychologist whose two young boys played with the refugee children in the local playground. “The eviction happened just as the children were going to school. They saw the police buses. Many were frightened. Many were worried about the people they knew. They asked, ‘why are they taking their home away?’ and, ‘where are they taking them?’. They still ask, ‘where are they now?'”
Volunteers rushed to the squat as the eviction was in process on the morning of September 23. Many fought back tears as they waved to the children they had tutored in English, Greek, football and baseball.
Monday’s raid was preceded by two others on August 26 and September 19. All were part of the ruling New Democracy party’s policy of increasing security in the centre of Athens, and reclaiming buildings used as squats, some of which are privately owned.
In all, police evicted 546 migrants from central Athens squats, arresting a Syrian man on charges of rape and another for possession of knives. Fifty-eight were to be deported because they had no record of entering the country.
But neither of the previous raids raised the outcry that accompanied the closure of “the Fifth”, as its volunteers had affectionately come to know it.
One of the volunteers later posted a photograph of a weeping boy sitting in his mother’s lap in one of the buses police had chartered. “I know the little boy in this picture, and his mom,” she said. “We managed to get him a new Spiderman backpack as well as notebooks and pencils about which he was very proud. He is now in a cold, muddy camp in Corinth.”
The Corinth camp, 80km (50 miles) south of the capital, where police took the evictees, is a military base. It became notorious as a detention facility for undocumented migrants in 2012.
Police point out that the evictees will be staying in a newly landscaped, open part of the camp. “These people are not under arrest. Even if they haven’t applied for asylum, they are allowed to do so now,” police spokesman Loukas Krikos told Al Jazeera.
But the open camp is a tent city, far from the town of Corinth. Its children are not enrolled in local schools.
“Our people, they’ve walked out of war zones, they don’t expect luxury and they’re very resilient,” said one of the Fifth’s volunteers. Even so, she added, some were trickling back to Athens, preferring to be homeless in the neighbourhood that embraced them than sheltered in Corinth.
“The people who want to come back to Athens are those who are enrolled in school. They don’t want the disruption. Some of the families are even willing to sleep on the street,” she said.
“We want the best for people,” says Kastro Dakdouk, a Syrian artist who has lived in Greece for 30 years and created the squat. “But you can’t take people from a situation and put them in a worse one.”
He especially objects to the manner of his wards’ removal.
“The worst effect of war on children is the loss of school and of their friends. That effect has just been replicated,” he told Al Jazeera.
“They didn’t need people in military camouflage to show up at dawn with guns and masks and gloves, as if they were going to get infected.”
Vulnerable asylum applicants, like the Fifth High School families, are eligible for a cash assistance programme run by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), and for subsidised housing in apartments.
Dakdouk says an estimated 140 of his wards had applied for asylum and are already fully documented, but ended up in the squat because there were not enough apartments to go round.
Over the years, the refugees and their benefactors invested in the Fifth High School, mending windows and lights, and installing ceiling fans. A completely dysfunctional plumbing system was fixed (the apparent cause of the school’s closure in the first place), allowing lavatories, showers and a kitchen to operate.
The furore over the Fifth highlights the tension between state and grassroots attitudes to humanitarianism.
Greek authorities have found it difficult to provide medical, educational and social services in far-flung military camps, which volunteers readily offer in urban centres.
First Reception Centres – or hotspots – on the eastern Aegean Islands, where new arrivals make landfall, are already notorious for overcrowding, inundated asylum services and inadequate state support.
Such conditions make it more difficult for refugees to weather the long wait – sometimes for years – for the result of their asylum application. Tensions run high in hotspots, and outbreaks of violence are frequent. On September 29, at least one woman died in a fire in the overcrowded Moria camp on Lesbos Island. Inter-ethnic fights there have left a number of asylum seekers dead over the years.
Last summer, when the European Commission withdrew funding from charities and diverted it to Greek state coffers, conditions in hotspots grew even worse. The national Centres for Disease Control refused to man camp medical offices on islands in the east Aegean, citing hazardous conditions. The Greek Red Cross maintains a single psychiatrist in Moria for 12,000 people, many of whom are experiencing post-traumatic stress. The charity Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) has partly filled the breach, but it is forced to triage.
One former conservative prime minister described the refugee crisis as “an unarmed invasion”. New Democracy is answering to a desire for law and order among many Greeks since the refugee crisis began in earnest in 2015.
Greece has borne much of the burden of refugee arrivals in Europe since then. In February 2016, after a million asylum seekers had walked through Greece and across the Balkans to Germany, Austria and a group of former Yugoslav republics put up border fences closing the northern route and leaving Greece outside this security arrangement.
Greece, with its archipelago of Aegean Islands, has been naturally exposed to arrivals from Turkey. Since the Balkan route’s closure, Greece’s resident refugee population has grown from approximately 50,000 to 88,750, according to the UNHCR.
Unsurprisingly, Greece’s Asylum Service is one of the continent’s busiest, currently processing 11 percent of asylum applications in the EU – far above the 1.6 percent the European Commission apportioned to it on the basis of its population and the size of its economy.
An EU relocation programme, which took some 22,000 asylum cases off Greece’s hands and shared them among the bloc’s other member states, ended in 2017. The only legal way out of Greece and into the EU is family reunification, which is notoriously slow. Turkey agreed to accept deportations in an agreement known as the EU-Turkey Statement of 2016, but only about 1,900 have taken place – less than one percent of arrivals into Greece since the Statement.
The crisis is now worsening again, as the number of refugees arriving from Turkey in rubber dinghies has risen sharply this month. That leaves the New Democracy government, which came to power in July, under increased pressure to deliver the sense of control it has promised.
Authorities have not said what will happen to the evacuated buildings in Exarchia. During its 120-year life, the Fifth High School has housed a German school and a medical research institute on chest ailments. On Wednesday, workers bricked up the entrance with cement blocks.