Refugees in Greece: "We Did Not Expect to Live This Life in Europe"

Guillaume Binet/MYOP

Almost one month after the signing of the EU-Turkey deal, the situation across Greece remains chaotic and inhumane. In improvised camps and detention centers across the country, around 50,000 people are stranded in appalling conditions. In what is becoming unbearable heat, many are unable to access the asylum system and are rapidly losing hope that they will be able to join their relatives or find places to live in peace.

The 10,000 People Trapped at Idomeni Must Not Pay for Europe’s Poor Policy with Their Health

In Idomeni, Greece, following the closure of the Balkans route to Europe, thousands are stranded and vulnerable to violence at the hands of the border police or smugglers. Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams have treated babies as young as six weeks old for exposure to tear gas and ten-year-old children for rubber bullet wounds. MSF teams also deal with the health consequences of long term settlement in a camp that does not provide adequate shelter, health services, or sanitation.

MSF is also collaborating with Greek authorities to conduct an immunization campaign to protect children in the camp from vaccine-preventable diseases.

"Some of these children were born on European soil, others have been displaced for months, some for years, and most of them have not received all of the routine childhood vaccination that they need," said Emmanuel Massart, MSF field coordinator in Idomeni. "Europe has decided to stop thousands of people from moving through Greece but did not properly plan to address their basic needs. This was a fully predictable crisis, caused by the deliberate neglect of European governments and institutions."

Helplessness and Frustration Add to the Tension in Athens

The situation is no better in Athens, where, in spite of the relief provided by volunteers and local charities, basic living conditions for refugees are not being met. Feelings of helplessness and frustration add to the tension between refugees who feel that their cases are categorized arbitrarily according to their nationalities. "Disputes between Syrians and Afghans break out every night," explains Mohammad, a Syrian refugee from Latakia who arrived at the port mid-March. "The decision to accept Syrians and Iraqis as refugees but not Afghans is not fair at all, because many Afghans’ suffering was even worse than the Syrians. That’s what make Afghans angry with the Syrians."

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In Elliniko Camp there are around 4,000 refugees, mostly from Afghanistan, who started a hunger strike two days ago in protest of the camp’s dire living conditions. Police officers come to the Piraeus Camp several times a day to persuade families to board buses and be taken to government-run camps until their papers come through. Many refuse, despite the risk of being evicted.

Services in Military-Run Camps far from Adequate

It is not hard to see why people do not want to come to the government-run camps. The services on offer are still far from what is advertised in Pireaus. Near the Albanian border, in Ioannina City, the Katsikas military-run camp hosts 1,500 asylum seekers who spend their days in the heat and freeze at night. They sleep in tents without mattresses and have nothing but sheets to keep warm on the cold, hard, and rocky ground.

A Greek army truck comes twice a day to distribute food and water, and people spend their days avoiding snakes and scorpions. They rely on camp fires to provide heat and to sterilize water in order to prevent their children from suffering from diarrhea.

"Maybe we are lucky because we are not stuck on the islands, but we are not much better off than they are," says Khaled, a Yazidi man from Iraqi Kurdistan's Sinjar Mountains. "We are also stuck here in this terrible place with no idea of  how long we will live here and how we will  survive. We did not expect to live like this in Europe, we came here to seek safety after ISIS had killed us, kidnapped and raped our women, and exiled us. The whole world was watching our tragedy but no one did a thing to help my people!"

The Greek "Prison" Islands

On the shores of the Greek islands, thousands of people, the majority of whom fled wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, are detained behind layers of razor wire. Following the hasty implementation of the EU-Turkey deal, men, women, and children are locked up without charge, many beyond the maximum 25-day period and in putrid spaces designed to host people for only a few days.

"The hotspot center in Samos is currently at four times its intended capacity; conditions are miserable and tension is at a breaking point," said Julien Delozanne, MSF field coordinator in Samos. "So little information is provided to those who are imprisoned here. They are unable to see what the future holds for them. As far as we understand, unaccompanied minors and other vulnerable people are excluded from the EU-Turkey deal and will not be sent back to Turkey, but still they are detained. The mismanagement and poor planning Europe is demonstrating in Samos is beyond belief."

Meanwhile, on Lesbos, those who have been detained for more than 25 days are allowed to move about on the island but are left with virtually no assistance. Families and unaccompanied minors are separated from single adult males, but many vulnerable cases slip through the cracks and conditions in the camps remain well below acceptable standards.

"In our projects all over Greece we are witnessing the consequences of inhumane policies that have left thousands of people stranded and forgotten without access to basic services or information," says Stefano Argenziano, operations coordinator for MSF’s migration projects. "European states and authorities have decided to make deterrence their only priority and give up on providing protection and assistance to these people—despite their moral and legal responsibility to do so."

Read the Open Letter: Europe, Don't Turn Your Back on Asylum

Idomeni, border between Greece and Macedonia domeni, frontière entre la grèce et la macédoine. 1 200 refugees are stuck since the closing of the border, waiting for an agreement between Europe and Turkey (which happened on March 18th 2016)
Guillaume Binet/MYOP