Greece: the new Promised Land
Maurizio Dematteis - 18/01/2010
«From now on, the only door to Europe is situated at the border between Turkey and Greece » insists Bawa Hissen Folase, a young man from Darfur, among the first victims of the expulsion of migrants wanted by the current Berlusconi government. “We can no longer pass through Morocco because of military shooting”, he says. “And neither through Libya. It’s too dangerous. I have already been there: I have worked in Tripoli for three years in order to pay a trip to Lampedusa. Then the Italian police made us return.” They were 18. During the crossing, a few among the weakest died. “Today, I’m here, in Patras”, concludes the young Sudanese, “and I hope to reach Italy by boat as soon as possible.” There are very different routes to reach the border between Turkey and Greece, a new Eldorado for persons running away from war, famine and poverty, in search of Europe. For example, Mr. Mahmud, a fifty-year old Sudanese mining engineer, narrates: “I came to Ankara by plane from Cairo in Egypt. I have escaped Khartoum where I left my wife and four children because I ended up on the government’s black list. I was pursued.” Once in Ankara, Mahmud contacted a smuggler immediately to enter in Europe. How? “With a mobile phone of course, he explains, calling the number a compatriot I met in Cairo had given me”. No sooner said than done, for the sum of 600 dollars, less than what is needed to go from Libya to Italy or from Morocco to Spain. Mahmud embarked a rubber dinghy that took him together with 35 other persons of Kurdish, Afghan and Iraqi origins, from Izmir, on the Turkish coast to the Greek Island of Samos. After two months of “prison camp”, he was released with a bimonthly residence permit or whitepaper, as the refugees call it, thanks to which he can stay in Greece while waiting for his asylum request. If the answer is negative, the Greek authorities will deliver an expulsion notice called “red paper” in jargon; if the answer if positive, he will be given a “green paper”, a right to asylum document. “In reality, I have been in Greece for six months and I have had no answer”, explains the engineer. He is obliged to sleep illegally with 200 other persons, compatriots, Somalis, Eritreans, and Sub-Saharans in abandoned wagons close to the station in the suburbs West of Patras.
“It’s very easy to enter Greece. What is difficult is going out”, claims Hamid, holding his head in his hand while observing the stretched out plastic cloth, cartons and complied mattresses under the olive trees. He declares being 14 years old and makes part of a group of young irregular Afghan immigrants – more than 500-, who hide in the so-called “forest”, a big olive grove in the suburbs East of Patras. Tracked by the police forces, they are waiting to flee to Italy. Every two or three days, the policemen turn up at dawn at the “illegal camp”, a series of small camps made up of seven to eight youngsters, disseminated in the olive grove. They destroy their wealthy shacks made of carton and cloth, arrest four or five escaping Afghans and leave. “It’s not only a question of executing orders”, denounces Johannis Lamprous, an activist of the humanitarian association Kinisi in Patras, “but real acts of violence, committed by police agents. They hit these youngsters, insult them and systematically rob their money and mobile phones and very often they even urinate on their mattresses.” While Johannis shares his experience, Rohalla a twenty-year old Afghani shows us the big sun umbrella that they used as a shelter when it rained at night: the eight pieces of cloth between the wires are completely lacerated. Two days before, a policeman has deliberately torn them with a knife before leaving.
The situation in Patras where one can find –apart from the group of Afghans- Sudanis, Somalis, Eritreans, Kurds, Iraqis and Palestinians, approximately a thousand persons according to the Kinsi Association (the only organisation taking care of them in the city), is absolutely uncontrollable. The migrants are strictly organised in illegal camps: a few outdoor, others under train wagons, and others in abandoned houses. They are divided according to their country or their geographic area of origin. Without assistance, without water, without light, with wealthy “toilets” and “bathrooms”. But the situation in Patras is just the emerged part of the iceberg of an illegal immigration system, which starts in Kabul, as much as in Khartoum or in the West Bank in order to enter Europe via the border between Turkey and Greece. A history of efforts, injustice, abuse, violation and death. All this to reach the European outpost of the Aegean Sea in a Hellenic enclave where all illegal migrants who wait for a residence permit or who ask for asylum, then try to illegally go to Italy hidden under containers or hanging on to heavy transport trailers. Thus they hope to embark for Bari, Ancona or Venice to stay there or to be able to move “freely’ to other neighbouring European countries.
Abdullah, a young 18 year old Afghan, tells us his story: “it took me more than two months to arrive here. I left my village in the North of Kabul to go to Kandahar. From there, I went to Pakistan, to the city of Quetta and I continued towards Iran. I arrived in Khoy, close to the border between Iran and Turkey by car accompanied by “smugglers”, along the mountains, and I entered Turkey in the city of Van. From there, I headed to Ankara, then Istanbul, Izmir and ended up at the detention centre of Paganì on the island of Lesbos. Now, I have been in Patras for 6 months and I’m waiting to go to Italy because I really want to go to Europe…” By his side, Amir, a young twenty-year old Iraqi arrived in Patras injured by a weapon. “It’s not the first time – confirm Johannis Lamprous. In these cases, we resort to the public hospital where doctors are ready to treat illegal immigrants without denouncing them. But one has to pay attention to the people met in hospital”. Today, Amir is better and the night when this interview took place, he tried to take a boat that was going to Italy. Illegally. The rendezvous was fixed at 5.30pm in front of the ticket booth in Othonos Amalias Street, opposite to boarding gate number 7, the one for Italy. Amir, together with a small group of ten youngsters, a majority of Afghanis, waits for a lorry to stop in order to take his ticket. A Bulgarian lorry arrives and as soon as the driver comes down, Amir waves and leaps under the trail and settles between the crates of the central part. The driver, who didn’t see anything, goes back into his vehicle and starts the engine to enter the harbour. Will Amir manage to arrive in Italy? Nothing is sure, as he has to pass under the caudine forks of the Greek harbour policemen who recently intensified their control. “There is a way to go to Italy – explains Magal, Amir’s compatriot. You just have to have money and they will let you pass.” The recent discovery of a lorry carrying 25 irregular immigrants hidden in a double back by the harbour policemen of Patras proofs this. “This trafficking is organised directly from Athens”, explains Mihalis Sidiropoulos, a young law student, activist of Kinisi in Patras, “from where the lorries are loaded with hidden illegal immigrants and they arrive directly in the harbours of Venice, Ancona or Bari.” The cost of a “trip” varies and can amount to two thousand Euros.
The rate of the refugee status recognition is of 2% in Greece where in the EU, the rate is of an average of 20%. The makes Greece the less “welcoming” country. However, the country recently changed government and many are those who expect strong signs of change. “The new Papandreou government inherits a situation of immigration management which is far from being simple”, explains Mihalis Sidiropoulos. “There are a lot of international relations problems and a lot corruption cases between public workers and policemen who commit human trafficking on an international scale. And even if I think that few things will change immediately because the government coalition is very broad going from centre to moderate left, I can catch a glimpse of some positive signs.” Like for example the choice of the new Minister for Justice from now on called “Minister of Justice, Corruption and Human Rights”, believes Apostolos Katsifaras, an old socialist coming from Patras who is very familiar with problems linked to irregular immigration.
At the same time, it’s becoming more and more difficult to take the route of irregular immigrants starting from Patras Harbour. According to the young Afghanis refugees taking refuge in the “forest”, these past three months, only a few dozens among them have succeeded to leave. And less than twenty have managed to pass the Italian controls in the destination harbours. “Yesterday, a friend was sleeping with us here in the “forest” called me. He had just arrived in Calais, in France – tells us Hassan, a young Afghani. He tried a new road, a land one this time: The Republic of Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria. He told m that the most difficult passage is the one between Serbia and Austria because the policemen are dangerous. But once in Austria, there are no more problems. As soon as I manage to gather some money, I will leave as well. Because I think that for all of us, that one is the new road.”
Translated into English by Elizabeth Grech