The Syrian Exodus Reaches Athens

After more than two years of war, Syrians make up the largest group of migrants arriving in Greece.

“It was 5:00 AM. My sister cooked me a delicious breakfast. Then I jumped in the car and made for the Syrian-Turkish border.”

Lawand Deek, a 21-year-old from Ar-Raqqah province, is keeping a diary of his exodus from Syria. The number of pages is growing.

As a child, Lawand had hoped to go to Canada to study, but after his visa application was turned down, he resigned himself to enrolling as a student in Damascus, where he learned English. After the civil war erupted, he had to flee Ar-Raqqah because of violent clashes in the area. 

It did not take him long to get out of the country. He knew he did not want to end up in one of the refugee camps near the border, and instead headed northwest. 

Smuggled By Sea

“I crossed the Turkish border and passed by many cities until I arrived in Istanbul,” says Lawand. He made contact with a people smuggler who agreed to help him reach Europe. 

With 25 other Syrians, he travelled to Izmir, a city on Turkey’s west coast. In Izmir, they boarded a small boat and headed across the Aegean Sea towards the Greek island of Lesvos. 

“We had tried four times,” says Lawand. “This was the first time we had succeeded. There were two children with us. I was a bit scared because it was night and the boat was small. It was very dangerous.” 

The Greek coast guard saw the boat coming and helped the migrants reach the shore. It is not always this easy—seven Syrians died last March when their boat capsized while trying to land on Lesvos. 

A New Route

Syrians are the largest group of new arrivals in the Aegean islands, the main port of entry to Greece and the countries of the European Union. “Since 2004 most migrants arriving here have been Afghans,” says Ioanna Kotsioni, a migration expert with Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), “but now, for the first time, there are more Syrians than any other nationality.” 

In 2012, almost 8,000 Syrians arrived in Greece by irregular means, compared to 1,709 in the first four months of this year, according to data from the Greek police. Most migrants and refugees used to head for the land border between Turkey and Greece at Evros, in the north, but in the summer of 2012 the Greek authorities built a wall and deployed a 2,000-strong security force to stop the influx of new arrivals—hence the new route to the Aegean islands. 

Last year, MSF launched responses in both Evros and the islands of the Aegean to assist the migrants, some of whom were held in detention for several months at a time. Around 1,500 of the migrants helped by MSF were Syrians. 

Arrival, and Questions

Starting in April 2013, Syrians who can prove their nationality were no longer detained on arrival, despite Greek laws by which undocumented migrants from other countries can be detained for up to 18 months. 

Lawand and his traveling companions spent one night in Lesvos port in the custody of the coast guard, and another night in a police station. The police issued them with documents that allowed them to stay in Greece for six months. After this period they must either apply for the documents to be renewed or leave the country.

Having received his papers, Lawand bought a ferry ticket to the Greek capital, Athens. “I have no words to explain this feeling. I feel free and happy to be out of Syria,” he says. 

The ferry arrived in the port of Piraeus, near Athens, at first light. Entranced, Lawand took his first step on the Greek mainland, and was shocked to find his arms grabbed from both sides by policemen. 

He was held for a few hours and questioned by the European Union’s agency for external border security, known as Frontex, before being released. “They knew that I speak English. I told them everything I know and they let me go,” says Lawand.

To Stay or Go?

These are not the only obstacles facing migrants arriving in Greece from Syria and elsewhere. “Most have paid all the money they have to smugglers,” says Kotsioni, “and once here they don’t receive any assistance from the Greek state.” 

Most come from conflict-ridden countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Not only are new arrivals to Europe unlikely to receive a warm welcome, but many become victims of racially motivated attacks. 

For many migrants, the Greek capital is only a transit point—and not what they’d expected. “I didn’t expect Athens to be like this,” says Lawand, who has never been outside Syria before. “I imagined it would be like Europe—like the German and British cities.” 

Lawand has been in Athens for just one day and he looks tired. He is unsure what to do next, whether he should try to go to Canada or the United Kingdom to complete his studies, or to look for a job in the Greek capital. Regardless of where he is or goes, the uncertainty is something he’ll share with millions of Syrians.