As tourists and Greeks travel to the islands to enjoy the summer, dozens of small boats with a thousand people on board arrived on Greek shores on Monday. They arrive from Turkey and make arduous journeys, which can vary between a week and three months, depending on their nationality. Athens is the first stage in the West and the transit point for migrants fleeing the wars in the East.
“I hope to reunite with my son in Hamburg and start a better life from there,” says Irham Haidi, an exhausted 32-year-old Afghan. Like so many others, Haidi sent her son six months ago on the same journey she is now repeating with her husband and two other children. Originally from Ghazni (eastern Afghanistan), the Haïdi traveled the 5,600 kilometers that separate their city from the Greek capital in 75 days. On foot, by bus or in small boats, they crossed three borders through Iran and Turkey.
The arrival of undocumented migrants puts the institutions to the test
Faced with a lack of coordination and a lack of resources, the avalanche of immigrants in recent months has overwhelmed Greek institutions, which are seeing tens of thousands of immigrants march through their streets. Despite the austerity that has been hitting Greeks for years, networks of volunteers have become essential to welcome people who arrive in an irregular situation. They transform abandoned public places, such as a campsite on the island of Lesbos, a hotel on the island of Kos or a park in Athens, into temporary dormitories.
Fifty residents of the Exarcheia neighborhood are providing medical assistance, water and food, including games for children, to the more than 400 Afghans camping in the Pedion Tou Areos park in Athens. “Upon arrival in the islands, Afghans obtain a document that gives them up to 30 days to leave the country without being repatriated. The Syrians will have six months,” explains Balbis, a Greek volunteer. “It is our duty as human beings to help them. It may be that in two months we will be the same as them,” laments the man.
Greece has become the busiest gateway to Europe in recent times.
So far this year, 124,000 migrants have entered the Hellenic country, more than double the number in the first six months of 2014. Most arrive trying to flee the worsening war in their country. But only about 6,200 have requested asylum on Greek territory, 64% of them are Syrians, 20% Afghans. “This is a critical and very dramatic emergency situation,” warns Giorgos Tsarbipopulos, head of UNHCR (the United Nations refugee agency) in Greece. “The numbers are only increasing. Greece and Italy alone cannot face it. We need a European policy,” he adds.
Migrants follow the signs that their fellow citizens leave on the way. Depending on the savings, they will opt for a faster and more expensive route, or a cheaper and longer route. Those who can afford it will pay up to 2,000 euros from Syria (the average annual salary in this country) to take a bus and then a small boat; or 6,000 from Afghanistan to get to Athens. Those who do not, turn to the Google Maps application, which has become the official version of the guide low cost for migrants without resources, who plot their own escape route. Those with little savings buy barges on the Turkish coast for 300 euros, which they try to navigate to Greece with the only help of a GPS.
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Among the bushes and on blankets, the Haidi regain their strength with 400 other Afghans in the Pedion Tou Areos park. Two weeks ago, drug addicts and vagrants who inhabited this central garden were displaced by hundreds of irregular migrants. Today, dozens of tents alternate with statues of revolutionary Greek leaders and occasional homeless people. The majority belong to the Hazara ethnic group, which, like the Haidis, is persecuted in Afghanistan.
“The Taliban and the Islamic State consider us apostates. They persecute and harass us. We have no choice but to emigrate if we want to keep our heads on our shoulders,” says Ibrahim, 28, from Konduz. Many say they were shot or beaten by Iranian border police on the way. So far this year, nearly 3,000 people who, like him, have tried to cross the Mediterranean will not be able to count him; They lost their lives trying to cross into Europe.
With new technologies, word of mouth is called Whatsapp. Routes vary by country of origin. The public spaces where migrants who wait in Athens sleep to continue their journey are also organized by nationality. Syrians roam Ominia Square. There, four young Syrians put down their heavy backpacks. “We have just arrived from Kos,” replies Jolán Fayad, a 33-year-old chemist, his eyes shining from lack of sleep.
The four young men left Damascus by land to board a ship off the Lebanese coast and reach Izmir. In this Turkish coastal city, the roads of Afghans and Syrians converge. “In Basma Square, there are illegal pins. It’s a mafia that charges about 1,000 euros for a ticket on a plastic raft, it’s about an hour’s journey to the nearest island,” says Fayad. From there they go to Athens by ferry.
Before the rails of the central station begins the second phase of the journey of undocumented migrants. Ticket in hand, the Hadil family, originally from Deir Zor, today one of the strongholds of the Islamic State (IS), smiles. Before, they have to go through Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary – in fact, Hungary is finalizing the construction of a wall on the border with Serbia to prevent these arrivals – or Austria. Many are trying to reach Germany, a country they see as the new promised land.
“The road will not be easy, but anything will be better than dying by bombs or exposing yourself to having your throat slit by IS,” remarks Ramia, the youngest member of the group.