„Refugees are not numbers, they are persons: They are faces, names, and stories – and they have to be treated as such“.
Pope Francis, Lesvos/Greece 2016
It is slowly getting dark on Aristotle square in Thessaloniki, a corner is smelling of urine, and the cellphone stores on the square are packed with young people wanting to buy new cards or top up old ones. Individuals and families, with backpacks and plastic bags, are preparing to spend the night outside or are hoping for volunteers to provide first aid and accompany them to the few available accommodations. A few hundred metres on, the still well-off Greek middle classes go for a walk, visit fancy cafes and well-attended restaurants at the extensively restored old pier. Tourists, especially from Turkey, can also be observed on these warm summer days.
A word completely upside-down presents itself: Each day many people flee from Afrin in North-Syria, besieged by Turkish troops, via Turkey. The trafficking industry has adapted already: Refugees are taken across the Turkish-Greek border river Evros near Souvli, dangerous due to its currents, by men with boats, and for ample payment, of course, in order to reach Thessaloniki, some 360km to the west. Up to April 2018 already 4000 desperate people took this trip. Between January and March 2018 an additional 5330 came via the sea. A total of 856 723 people fled via Greece in 2015. In early 2018 about 43 000 refugees lived in Greece, according to estimates by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), with numbers sharply rising to nearly 60 000 people in April. At the same time Syrian refugees with with a perspective to stay in Germany try to get back to their families in Turkey – due to the thwarted family reunion policy.
This is the situation encountered by professionals from the project group Europe4refugees, who met in the Greek mainland metropolis in April 2018, in order to exchange knowledge on the situation of refugees in five European countries. The International Association for Education and Exchange in Dortmund (IBB e.V.), is both initiator and coordinator of the 19-month EU project as part of a „strategic partnership“. Following a first „learning activity“, the EU term for such professional meetings, in the Italian town of Cosenza in the autumn of 2018, the programme now featured a meeting at the location in Greece. Further visits to other countries will follow. Partners from Italy, Germany, Hungary, Norway, and the Greek island of Lesvos met the project partner from Thessaloniki.
Non-governmental organisations are the only hope for refugees
Besides input talks from different NGOs, the UNHCR, the Greek Council for Refugees, and others, there were visits to refugee support facilities, which often provide the most important basic services. The many volunteers and professional supporters provide shelter, food, a shower, and help in visiting public authorities, and in school enrollment for the many children. Basic health care and vaccinations are provided all over the country by one of the largest NGOs, Praksis. The psychologists, social workers, and attorneys of Praksis further support unaccompanied minors. For this purpose, living groups and buildings, similar to clearing houses in Germany are available. The youths, many of them traumatised, are intensively supported and consulted.
Greece, just like the project group has seen in Italy earlier, also features so-called „ping pong migration“. Either people are pushed back at the borders: There are reports about push-backs to Turkey, which, according to the unanimous opinion of legal experts, is an illegal practice. Refugees are illegally re-deported by force with buses, before they can even enter asylum procedures. Or, alternatively, refugees which have been denied or are exhausted by the long duration of the process, try their luck in other countries, but ultimately return to the first European country they entered. Just like Khaled*, the young Iraqi we met in a dormitory in the upper town of Thessaloniki. He is talking with gestures as much as with words, but his story is clear: After arriving in Germany and an endless period of waiting he was not recognised, and then went to Calais. His destination was obvious, he has relatives in Britain. However, as, after several attempts he was unable to get through the tunnel, he returned to Thessaloniki along tortuous paths; his odyssey took nearly two years. „There is no chance I will stay here, there is nothing here, not even for Greeks. I will try again“, Khaled told us before leaving for his language course provided by an NGO.
Despite the economic crisis, the Greek supporters try to open up a perspective for refugees, and – at least temporarily – integrate them into Greek society. Whether there is a chance, one simply can‘t say. In any way, psychological support, language acquisition, and orientation are, at the very least, building blocks for survival. Re-adjusting to an ordered life with accommodation, shared meals, and a structured day also supports stabilising persons, especially the minors, emphasises Mihalis Polyrakis of Praksis. Indeed, specifically on the islands, like for example Crete, there are some examples of families or individuals creating a modest livelihood for themselves – as shopkeepers, translators, and social workers. However, these are exceptional. The Heinrich Böll Foundation, so Evangelos Astyrokakis in his talk with the E4r project group, wants to further push the career integration and job qualification of refugees, and is very interested in ideas from other European countries. The foreign representation of the foundation in Thessaloniki is already well connected with the „select respect network“ in Greece. As the country is mainly considered a way station, compared to the situation in other countries only a few refugee self-help groups have been formed, and only for continuing the flight to Western Europe. Further inclusion strategies can not yet succeed, as everyone somehow wants to leave again. However, this, at the moment is little more than an illusion, as the borders are closed, family reunions are hampered or impossible, and many will be stuck here for months or years. Greece and the refugees are currently bearing the consequences of an increasing politics of isolation of the Fortress (Western) Europe.
Homelessness and a lack of perspectives are wearing down all those involved
A contact point for specifically vulnerable persons was created in another borough of the bursting city with roughly a million inhabitants. In general, the housing situation in Thessaloniki is tense, there are for example 120 000 students in the city. On the hill of the rich, „Panorama“, huge villas with large grounds defy the crisis. Those with average incomes and poorer live in housing projects of the 1950s and 60s, stuffy in the summer, and, all Thessaloniki is complaining, in increasingly littered streets. Even the many pensioners can‘t change that; they have to sweep the streets or collect litter to supplement their pensions, which have been decimated by the crisis. Yet, Thessaloniki has a long tradition of taking in refugees. The city is and was both destination and origin for emigrants and immigrants, and not only the „guest workers“, who left the city for Germany during the so-called „recruitment years“. Earlier, in 1923, following the Lausanne treaty, forced resettlement of around 400 000 Muslims and Turkish Greeks to Turkey took place. From Turkey, around 1.2 million Anatolian and Pontus Greeks where forcibly resettled to the regions of Thrace and Macedonia near Thessaloniki and on the Chaldiki peninsula; a process which in the history books of both nations was normalised as a „population exchange“.
The newcomers were never popular and were settled outside the city walls; today one can still find the ruins of these small houses.
In 2018, children and single pregnant refugees find shelter in accommodations within Thessaloniki, run by NGOs. It is unclear for how long, though, as in June the UNHCR programme for accommodating refugees ends without replacement, and is supposed to be transferred to the Greek government.
„We have no idea where to house the people already here for a long time, not to speak of alternatives for the many newly arrived“, reports Stefania Stefanovich of UNHCR. Thus, increasingly, homeless refugees are flocking to the support project Alkiyone of Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe. Many programmes are kept running only by the little means available and a few donations, for example the sewing and qualification programmes of the economical consulting organisation NAOMI, which we visited, with the young German social worker Paul Esser as our guide. There, just like in other volunteer organisations, they try to support refugees with consulting and language courses. Previously, working migrants from Bulgaria, as well as refugees from Syria and Afghanistan, visited the contact point for homeless people run by Praksis, one of the few supported by the municipality and the Stavros-Niarchos-Foundation. Now, the social workers see many Pakistanis, Iranians and Iraqis, and soon there will be Kurds coming from Afrin.
Solidarity remains, but right-wing nationalists mobilise
The problem of accommodating, supporting, and consulting refugees is worsened by those desperately trying to leave the overflowing camps on the islands for the mainland. According to a recent court decision in Greece, new arrivals may no longer be held there, as in Lesvos alone, in and around the Mytilini camp, planned for around 2000 people, there are now 8000 people under living in unacceptable conditions. Still, many inhabitants of the islands support the refugees, even though often they have little themselves due to the economic crisis. However, during the past few weeks, there were violent clashes, among others with right-wing nationalist forces like „Golden Dawn“, which try to prevent this and any other form of integration. „These people do not want refugee children to go to school, as they supposedly could infect the children of the rich, and so they make our life harder. This party also has a seat in the city council of Thessaloniki“ reports Andromachi Besiri of the NGO Antigoni, developing special services for children and youths of school age. Also in order to placate the opponents of integration, Praksis, with support of the policlinic, has now vaccinated all the children. „In this situation, everyone actually wants to leave, mostly to Germany. There have already been desperate attempts to stow away on ferries to Italy, as the mainland borders are closed“ so the sad conclusion of Vasilis Psychodakis of Dialogos, the host of the professional exchange. Pakistanis and Afghans have come to blows in Patras harbour for one of the dangerous spaces below the lorries. This has previously only been seen in Calais, where people continue to try to reach England.
New flight routes should lead refugees to the Schengen area
According to IBB research, the flight routes are currently changing once again. At the moment – so Bosnian sources notice – people are increasingly fleeing via Bosnia and Herzegovina, and try to reach the Schengen area from here. As the Northern route over the Balkans is closed, a new axis has opened: Greece, Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Drugs and weapons are also smuggled via these countries, it is said. Until the beginning of 2018, more than 1500 people tried, around half of them were rejected at the borders. The country is ill-prepared for refugees, only near Sarajevo there is a reception centre with only 154 places.
Just like Greece, Bosnia and Herzegovina suffers from large emigration movements, especially an increasing „brain drain“, that is well-educated young people emigrating due to the economic crisis. More than 400 000 workers have left Greece due to the financial crisis in the last few years. Now, the large number of refugees also has to be provided for.
Northern Europe, and especially Germany is the destination of most of those staying temporarily, who currently have little interest to integrate themselves into Greece, even if their continued journey to Germany becomes impossible. Just like Akbar* from Syria, a single father. His situation is desolate: He fled alone with 5 children to Thessaloniki, with a number of horrible experiences on the way. The youngest child is only 8 months old, and his wife was killed in Syria. His desired destination is Germany, his sister and sister-in-law live there. But family reunion policies do not recognise such a constellation, not even in such a case of hardship like Akbar’s. He is now being supported and attended to by social workers in the refuge run by the NGO Filoxenio in Thessaloniki, in order to enable him to somewhat deal with his five small children alone. As his perspectives in economically ailing Greece are close to zero, he considers going back to Syria, into no man‘s land, or somewhere else, if Germany does not work out. There is no chance he wants to stay. „More or less around the clock, we try to help the families and enable a normal daily routine“ described Jourgos Manolis, coordinator and psychologist at Filoxenio, the situation in the facility for especially vulnerable persons, that is those in need of protection. „Many don‘t want to leave their room, others can – within the protection of the group – at least cook, learn some Greek, or their children visit a Greek school.“ There are clear EU guidelines for accommodating, integrating, and supporting such persons and families in special need of protection, however, few countries, Germany not among them, have implemented these, even though they became mandatory in 2015.
The state and the church are reserved actors: Old structures continue
The German professional group immediately noticed the rather reserved presence or – in the words of a Greek participant – complete absence of the state. Nearly all support work, and also its financial aspects, is done by social institutions, mostly NGOs, utilising donations or short-term EU grants. Behind closed doors, the Greek supporters and professionals also lament the failure of the Greek-Orthodox church. During the professional visit, there was no orthodox support organisation to be found, everything is done by mostly foreign, protestant or ecumenical groups. „There is no centralised voice of the Greek church in these matters“, so the unanimous judgment of the Greek social work professionals. This is the case, even though religion is very present in the everyday life of people. Baptisms are taking place everywhere, the Sunday Mass is well attended. While Pope Francis, much more active in refugee matters, together with the ecumenical patriarch and the orthodox archbishop of Athens, signed a pressing appeal for supporting refugees, little has happened since, considering the immense financial wealth of the highly privileged Greek churches.
However, the largest problem is the still rampant corruption and client politics, the Greek project participants analysed. „Fakelaki“ and „Metakliti“ is known by every Greek. Those who want something should carry a well-stuffed envelope with them, and those with connections to the government are in luck. The current government shows little improvement in this respect. This prevents fair competition in the country, also for small education providers and consulting offices. It also effects the social field and funding for refugee work. There are enough active and committed professional, who, given appropriate funding, could do additional support work. Without a European or national budget, however, this work can not be simply managed by volunteers, also due to the rising number of refugees in Greece.
At least, prime minister Tsipras of the ruling Syriza party recently announced the re-opening of older, already closed refugee camps, to cope with the expected large number of people seeking support. Whether this turns out to be more than mere lip service remains to be seen. The same is true of whether the rest of Europe focuses on new laws meant to scare off and reject refugees, thereby showing a lack of sense regarding the escalating human catastrophe and for adequate solutions.
*Names of refugees have been altered.
All Captures: Azimi /Psychodakis 2018