THEBES, GREECE — For the roughly 13,000 refugees marooned in camps on four Greek islands, those who get to go to the mainland are the lucky ones. They can move freely in the country, and might be further along in their application process.

However, while life on the mainland does not include living in tents with scarce showers and outbreaks of diseases like scabies, not everyone in the accommodations considers themselves lucky.

For some, moving in to the mainland facilities — such as the massive warehouse in Thebes — increases the hopelessness.

In Thebes for two weeks by the time of his interview with ThinkProgress, Mohamad, 33, was evermore worried about the future of his family: His wife, Sabieh, and their two daughters, Asieh, 2 and Asenat, 4.

“My wife has experienced serious psychological distress in Greece,” said Mohamad. “We’ve traveled all this way, under difficult circumstances, so my family could be safe. But unfortunately, our circumstances have worsened here,” he added.

“You won’t put your life at risk, in a boat, small boat, without any kind of protection, just to hang out, or just to try life in Europe. Of course not… All the people who come here, we’re waiting for a mysterious future.”

The family left their home in Kabul last year after the Taliban escalated its threats against Mohamad, who had worked with U.S. and NATO forces. Even after he quit that job, the threats continued. The family went to Iran for six months, but authorities would not allow their daughters to sign up for school and there was little employment opportunities.

They fled to Turkey, then Greece, where they spent 8 months on the island of Samos and where his wife suffered a mental breakdown and Asieh became very ill, losing a third of her body weight in a matter of weeks. The family was placed in large container with eight other families, all from various Arab countries.

Mohmad and his daughter, Asieh, at the Thivu refugee housing facility -- a converted factory with 63 container apartments inside the factory and 65 outside. Each container houses a maximum of eight people. CREDIT: D. Parvaz/ThinkProgress.Mohmad and his daughter, Asieh, at the Thiva refugee housing facility — a converted factory with 63 container apartments inside the factory and 65 outside. Each container houses a maximum of eight people. (CREDIT: D. Parvaz/ThinkProgress)

“We couldn’t understand what they were saying, they couldn’t understand what we were saying. We couldn’t figure out what was going on,” he said, “When we brought this up with the authorities, they said, ‘Sorry. But other than under a tree and under the sky, there’s no other space for you.’”

“The only reason we were finally moved here is because my wife is pregnant,” he said.

“It’s not good to have people who have already suffered trauma in that situation, they need to be got out and moved to the mainland or into local accommodation where they can get treatment,” said Leo Dobbs, UNHCR’s spokesperson in Greece.

“There have been movements and transfers to the mainland, but they have not kept up, and now they seem to have slowed down quite a bit,” he said, adding, that he himself had been to Samos last month, a place he described as “crowded and miserable.”

“It was on a hillside, so when it rained, the water came sluicing through, and then there were rats,” said Dobbs.

So even though Mohamad and his family have this respite from the rats and rain, it won’t last long. In a matter of weeks or months, Mohamad, his pregnant wife (she’s currently four months along), and their two daughters will be sent back to Turkey — under the March 2016 E.U.-Turkey deal — a fate that seems unimaginable to him.

Mohamad isn’t sure how much longer he’ll be here. Their first asylum application was rejected. They’re appealing, but the odds are not in their favor.

But for now, Mohamad has more immediate concerns: The daily safety of his family.

“There was a knife fight between an Afghan boy and some Arabs a few nights ago. There’s a lot of fighting. I won’t let my wife go the restroom alone at night — I walk her there and back, not matter how late,” he said.

The Thivu housing facilities at best, seems like a museum entirely free of art. CREDIT: D. Parvaz/ThinkProgress.The Thebes housing facilities at best, seems like a museum entirely free of art. (CREDIT: D. Parvaz/ThinkProgress)

Fights are, indeed, common. At the end of ThinkProgress’s allotted 45-minute visit (accredited by Greece’s Ministry of Migration) a fight broke out. Dozens of people spilled out of several containers, women pulled each other’s hair, and a group of men beat another on the ground as he tried to defend himself with his belt.

Alcohol and drug abuse are common, said the military officer showing ThinkProgress the facilities.

But for some, the trauma and violence of what they fled was so immediate and acute that a container home in a warehouse is, with all of its uncertainty, a period of stability.

“The only thing I want is to hear my mother’s voice.”

“I have a bed to sleep in. I live alone in one room. I am safe,” said Rabbah, 23, a law student from Aleppo.

So accustomed is he to war in his native Syria that even having constant light and electricity is unnatural to him at this point.

“When I’m in my container, I don’t want the lamp turned on because for the past five years, I didn’t have electricity in my house,” said Rabbah, who left Syria around six months ago and spent about three months — relatively short by current standards — before being moved to Chios in January. He’s grateful, and hopes to one day continue his studies in the Netherlands. But his mind is more on his life in Syria than his future in Europe.

“I don’t know where my family is.When the fighting started with Turkey, we lost a lot of phone and internet connection. I haven’t been able to speak to them for long time.” He’s heard that his family home has been bombed.

Rabbah’s eyes tear up. “The only thing I want is to hear my mother’s voice,” he says, looking at the only photo of her he has on his phone.

Rabbah is one of the 680 “vulnerable” asylum seekers living in the Thebes facility. “Most of them are families, some of them are single with psychological problems because some of them were victims of torture,” said the military officer. There are also 15 unaccompanied minors there.

Children living a the Thiva asylum-seeker facility get a mid-day lesson on dinosaurs. Some of the children living there attend Greek schools on a strictly voluntary basis. CREDIT: D. Parvaz/ThinkProgress.Children living a the Thebes asylum-seeker facility get a mid-day lesson on dinosaurs. Some of the children living there attend Greek schools on a strictly voluntary basis. (CREDIT: D. Parvaz/ThinkProgress)

This camp opened in June 2017, when authorities moved 350 people from an unofficial camp into the renovated factory, which has the capacity of 800, but is considered full at 680 because not all of the residents can share accommodation — there are people in fragile psychological states and others with cultural differences, or families who don’t want to share with single people.

Ideally, though, each container unit can house eight people in four sets of bunkbeds.

The funding for the housing comes from the European Union, with the UNHCR providing small monthly cash allowances to the asylum seekers. Starting 2015, Greece was the first European country to get emergency European Union funding through the E.U’s humanitarian operation, which usually gives money to African countries.

There’s a school bus that takes 42 kids from this camp to local primary schools and 15 kids to secondary schools. Schooling is arranged via the Ministry of Education, the Greek government, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). According to the IOM, there are roughly 1,500 refugee children attending Greek schools — a small bright spot in a narrative that tends to be so dominated by misery and uncertainty.

An unbearable limbo

The Thebes camp feels isolated. It’s a 10 minute drive from the tiny train station, and about an hour away from Athens by a train ride that is not cheap —  about 12 Euro each way — for a refugee on a small stipend.

Less isolated is the now somewhat informal Skaramagas camp — roughly 30 minutes outside Athens. In fact, the driver for the A16 bus knows better than to insist anyone pay the fare on his route, which carries mostly asylum seekers from central Athens to harbor-side camp.

There, some 3,000 people live containers and there are no authorities on the scene. The Ministry of Migration (which did not respond to a request for an interview) is not charge of the camp. The Central Co-ordination Body for Refugee Crisis Management — which belongs to the Army — is meant to oversee the camp, but there was no sign of anyone at the posts when ThinkProgress paid a visit in late February.

Skaramagas was not overcrowded and overrun. Although there are periodic fights, the atmosphere isn’t tense. The Red Cross provides medical care and A Drop in the Ocean provides activities for children. Some containers were converted to markets and cafes, where on a cool night, people — mostly men — gathered to watch a movie, drink tea and socialize. Children kicked a ball around and women walked between containers at night.

Suhel, 22, is here to see his older brother, Soleiman, 26. The two haven’t seen each other for two years, since Soleiman left Syria and Suhel followed. Soleiman ended up on Lesbos, Suhel in Chios. He hated life in Chios.

The Skaramagas refugee housing camp looks somewhat like a prison from the outside, but residents have total freedom of movement. Although it's unclear if there are any Greek authorities currently overseeing the facility, or providing services. CREDIT: D. Parvaz/ThinkProgress.The Skaramagas refugee housing camp looks somewhat like a prison from the outside, but residents have total freedom of movement. Although it’s unclear if there are any Greek authorities currently overseeing the facility, or providing services. CREDIT: D. Parvaz/ThinkProgress.

“I wanted to get away from the camp, from eating their shitty food and doing nothing all the time, just eating and sleeping,” he said. He’d already come a long way.

Suhel left in 2016, shortly after he lost almost his entire family when their home was hit by an airstrike. “I lost my father, my mother, three sisters, one brother, two nieces and three nephews, and my fiance, who was unfortunately at my house,” he said.

He said he feels his mental health is stable now, but after he lost his family, he said he lost his mind, living on drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes for around six months.

And although Suhel is one of the “lucky ones” — he has his identity papers, made it out of Chios after 13 months, is now in UNHCR housing on the mainland, and has succeeded in appealing the rejection of his asylum application — he is far from safe.

“I still have one more interview. This is getting me crazy. I don’t know what more they want me to say. The last time, they kept asking me about Turkey, not Syria,” said Suhel.

Under the March 2016 E.U-Turkey deal, asylum seekers will be sent to Turkey if it is safe for them to live there.

For Suhel, who spent three months in Turkey, he stopped feeling safe after he started being targeted by people recruiting fighters as well as local criminals. “Then I was scared,” he said.

Soleiman, he said, has received his second rejection decision, which means he will be deported.

Lefteris Papagiannakis, the vice mayor in Athens for Migrants, Refugees and Municipal Decentralization told ThinkProgress the policies of reception and integration were the responsibility of the state, not the city of Athens. He said that what the Syrians are experiencing in their country is a crisis, “But Europe gets 3 percent of the population that moves forcibly or not, every year. This is not a crisis. But it can become a crisis if we do not find a global solution.”

“In five years, if we don’t find a solution, I can see Greece and other countries having very extreme right-wing governments, and Europe becoming a less attractive human rights advocate,” he added.

And that’s the direction things are going in, because Papagiannakis everyone is complicit in enforcing what he holds to be bad policy that is not “grounded in reality.”

A refugee family cook with chicken broth outside  the migrant and refugee registration camp in Moria, Lesbos on 6th February, 2018.  CREDIT: Juan Carlos Lucas/NurPhoto via Getty Images. Refugees fled to Greece for safety. They arrived at a living hell.

“But we are implementing a deterrent policy as a European Union. The argument is, ‘Let’s make the conditions bad, so people won’t come,’” said Papagiannakis.

“I don’t think this will work for the European Union — and that is not an official statement as a vice mayor, but as a politician,” he added. “I think the European Union is doing things wrong. I think the E.U. Turkey deal is a very bad choice.”

Suhel would certainly agree. He wonders how authorities can possibly see the decision refugees make to come to Greece as anything other than a last resort.

“You won’t put your life at risk, in a boat, small boat, without any kind of protection, just to hang out, or just to try life in Europe. Of course not… All the people who come here, we’re waiting for a mysterious future.”

This is the second part of a series of reported pieces on life as a refugee in Greece. You can read the first part here.

Source Link:
https://thinkprogress.org/refugees-mainland-greece-hopelessness/

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