I wrote this article for n-tv.de in September about the refugee situation in Athens itself. The majority of refugees stuck in Athens are Afghans, almost all of whom belong to the persecuted Hazara minority. They felt the authorities have forgotten them in light of the desperate situation in Syria. What they told me over and over again was “We still have war in our country”, but the international spotlight has moved on from Afghanistan and we only hear about the violence there when something exceptional happens, such as this week’s bombing of an MSF hospital in Kunduz. The German version of this article, published on September 11 and translated from my English original appears here.
Amidst the background noise of a general election campaign, the second within one year, Greece’s refugee crisis shows no signs of slowing down.
It has never been clearer that the journey these people face is getting more long and dangerous. Yet they continue to come. The UNHCR said that in July alone, some 50,000 refugees were registered as having arrived in Greece.
After travelling from the islands to the mainland, most of them immediately continue their journey north to reach other European countries. The plight of Syrian refugees and the suffering the war in their country has inflicted on them is finally being noticed.
But not all are so lucky.
Mere weeks after the makeshift refugee camp was cleared away from Pedion Areos park in downtown Athens and its residents moved to Elaionas refugee camp – with much fanfare by the Greek authorities – it’s clear that the situation is nowhere close to being dealt with adequately.
Victoria Square in the centre of Athens is the new, unofficial refugee camp. Children play with broken plastic toys and ride the metro’s elevator. An elderly Greek woman lets them pet her dog as she sits on a park bench. Mothers fan tiny babies sleeping on cloth spread over cardboard boxes. From time to time angry locals call the police who disperse the crowds. They disappear into the side streets to sleep and return as soon as the police are gone. Almost all of them are from Afghanistan.
The Afghan war, raging for over 30 years, is one which the world has been watching for so long now it’s as if it’s grown immune to it.
The vast majority of Afghan refugees fleeing the country belong to the Hazara minority which has historically been subjected to severe persecution which often follows them across the border into Pakistan as well.
The community makes up 25% of the country’s population. Attacks against them are a regular occurrence. In July 2014, Taliban fighters stopped two vehicles in the Ghor province, separated 14 Hazara passengers and shot them dead.
Whereas Pedion Areos was a fairly large park, Victoria Square is minute in comparison. Conditions are dismal. Authorities have yet to provide any sanitation or toilet facilities. Local businesses do what they can to help and volunteers give out sandwiches and baby clothes.
Ali Madad is a softly spoken 18 year old from Ghazni in Afghanistan. It took him over a month of travel by bus, car and on foot to reach Turkey. One week ago, he paid USD 1,000 for a place on a boat from Izmir to Lesvos, a journey he described as “terrifying”.
“There is a war going on in Afghanistan. There is Al Qaeda and the Taliban, bomb blasts. Things are bad there. That’s why left.”
“The Greek people were very good to us on Lesvos. But there were too many people.” He says that Syrians were given their papers a lot faster than any other group, and this caused tension on the island. “Here it’s still better than on Lesvos. It was terrible there. It was like a war.”
He said he would be leaving from the square the next day to go onward to his ultimate destination of Sweden. “My family is still in Afghanistan. My dream in life is to be somewhere safe.”
Muhammad Bashir isn’t sure of his exact age – “about 20” he says. He too is from Ghazni and he left Afghanistan because he is Hazara. “It’s very bad for us there. They kill us.”
“Lesvos was very bad. Afghans and Syrians fought a lot. Syrians get more help than us. I don’t know why. Maybe our people have been coming for too many years.” he says.
He says he didn’t know that Greece was overrun with refugees fleeing various wars until he came, but even if he had known he doesn’t know if that would have stopped him. “We want to leave here, but I don’t know how.”
“There is no toilet, nothing, no food. It’s very dirty. Some of the people are sick. We asked where the hospital is, but people didn’t understand us. It’s very hard for the families, for single men it’s not so bad.” He was leaving that same night to continue his journey, first to Germany and then Sweden, like his friend.
Younous Muhammadi, President of the Greek Forum of Refugees is himself a refugee from Afghanistan and came to Greece in 2001. He regularly visits the square with volunteers to clean and try and appease upset locals.
“Until 2014 most refugees were from Afghanistan. Syrians get priority because things are so bad there. There is the thought that all Syrians are refugees, but not all Afghans are refugees because there are some safe areas in the country. So the process for getting refugee status can take months or years.” he says.
He adds that Afghan refugees don’t have the same financial means that Syrians do and this forces them to make a slower journey out of Greece. “Afghans have no choice but to stay here longer until they can find the means to leave.” he says, adding that even officials don’t have an exact number for how many Afghan refugees are in the country.
As volunteers and refugees put on gloves to start cleaning up, families try to settle down for another night in the square. Ali and Muhammad both plan to be gone within the next 24 hours, but by the end of the week some 10,000 refugees will arrive in Athens with still no official response to where they should stay before they move on. With 2,000 people already spread in and around the square, Elaionas camp’s 700 beds will do little alleviate the problem.