Messages from Greece: Afghan refugees running out of options
By Monica Costa Riba, Amnesty International Europe campaigner
Nematollah and Ouranoos welcomed us inside their tent. It’s been more than five months since they and their four children arrived in Malakasa, a camp 40km north of Athens, mainly hosting Afghan asylum seekers like them.
They fled to Europe in search of a safer place. Instead, when the rest of Europe shut its borders without offering alternatives, they found themselves trapped in Greece.
In Kabul I worked with a foreign company and because of that the Taliban were after me and my daughters were at risk of being kidnapped.
As Afghans they have limited legal ways out of Greece. Unlike Syrians, for example, Afghans are not eligible for the relocation emergency programme adopted by the EU last year, which pledged 66,400 places in different European countries for asylum-seekers stranded in Greece.
According to a recent UNHCR study more than 70% of Afghans left because of the war and are by far the second largest nationality of refugees stranded in Greece, after Syrians. But Afghans do not have access to the EU relocation programme, because only nationalities which exceed the average asylum acceptance threshold in Europe can apply, and Afghans do not meet this criteria.
Even for nationalities who are eligible it remains largely an empty promise, with fewer than 3000 asylum-seekers having been accepted by other European countries so far, mainly due to a lack of political will.
This static, deadlocked existence is beginning to overcome even the most resilient spirits.
There is a growing sense of despair among Afghans stuck in Greece and tensions are rising. People we met in Malakasa were disappointed, frustrated and felt discriminated against. Nematollah only had one explanation for this:
“We are at war in Afghanistan, but because we come from a poor country no-one cares.”
Nematollah’s family recently “pre-registered” with the Greek Asylum Service. This means they can stay in the country while their asylum claim is being reviewed. But with no legal option to make it to Europe they ultimately have but two options: apply for asylum in Greece or go back to danger in Afghanistan. Most have naturally chosen to apply in Greece but their situation there is dire.
We are psychologically destroyed here. We can’t even travel to Athens because we can’t afford to keep paying for the train. It costs four euros each way and this is too much for us. Last time I left the camp was two months ago.
So they wait, surviving in a remote camp in a very deserted area, during the relentless heat of the summer. The nearest town is 10 minutes by car. But of course they don’t have one. They don’t even have a phone with internet access. And they feel totally cut off from the rest of the world.
A few tents down, we met Zalasht. When a bomb killed her husband four years ago her worst nightmare was the idea that the same could happen to her four children. So she sold her house and put her life – and her children’s lives - in the hands of smugglers to reach Europe. She arrived in Greece in February 2016.
Her smile hid palpable anxiety about their future.
“We were part of the first group of refugees coming to this camp. I was so scared. We didn’t know where they were taking us. We were told that conditions were better than in [Piraeus port] but it was not true. At the beginning there was only one toilet for 500 people and we couldn’t have a shower for a month”.
Zalasht doesn’t know what to do. The idea of spending another winter in the camp chills her.
This place is full of snakes, we do not have clothes and when it rains the water comes inside the tent. At night it’s very dark. We only have a torch that we have to share among the five of us. If I have to accompany one of my kids to the toilet, the rest are left completely dark inside.
She is also worried about her daughters. In Kabul she escorted the girls to school because it was not safe for them. But, she says, “now in Europe they can’t even go to school.”
We came to this place because the borders shut for us. We didn’t expect to be living in Europe like this for so long.
Golroz from Afghanistan is six-months pregnant and has been stranded for five months in the abandoned airport of Elliniko, in the outskirts of Athens.
In February, when Europe closed the borders, the arrivals hall of this former airport became the last stop of their journey.
“When we came, we were sleeping inside the arrivals hall. It was very crowded and cold. The only space we could find was near the toilets and it was filthy and smelly. A month ago we decided to move outside with a tent because in the building it was too hot and we didn’t have money to buy a fan.”
They are not the only ones staying outside. Many others have done the same and the surroundings of the airport are occupied by dozens of makeshift shelters that provide some semblance of privacy amid the chaos of the camp.
Golroz has no idea what will happen to her after giving birth, but this wasn’t even her first worry. She was primarily concerned about the lack of answers about her future.
We had a life in Afghanistan. We had a farm. We only left because of the war. Now we can’t go back but we can’t go forward. We are totally stuck.
The Elliniko old airport is currently hosting 1,200 people - mainly Afghans.
When we visited the site last March, only two weeks after it was converted into a refugee camp, it was clear that the place was totally unprepared to host anyone for more than few days. Families were complaining about their children getting sick because of the unsuitable food provided, health care was insufficient and lack of hygiene was obvious.
When we returned in July, very little seemed to have changed – except the weather and a somewhat stronger NGO presence. But then I realised that something else had changed: the mood of the people has flat-lined as hope fades.
Many of the people that we talked to now assumed that after six months, the prospect of rebuilding their lives in other parts of Europe is not an option.
The Greek authorities recently announced their intention to close some camps, including the ones at the old airport in Elliniko and two former Olympic stadiums in the same area. They host around 2,000 refugees and migrants in similar conditions. No one in the camps seemed to have information about these plans, only rumours, and they were worried.
In the meantime, tensions and violence in Elliniko and Malakasa are increasing. Many refugees do not feel safe, particularly at night. Lack of opportunities to move on - coupled with terrible living conditions - are fuelling a very tense atmosphere in the camps.
With such limited legal options to get out of Greece, many Afghan refugees have no option but to try irregular, expensive and dangerous routes. The slow and uncertain process of family reunification is their only option, but for those who don’t have family in Europe already, things look bleak. Others simply need money to survive and are being exploited in the irregular labour market.
Refugees stranded in Greece need protection and all European countries must share this responsibility. But whilst Europe continues to ignore this reality and leaves people cooped up, living in inhumane conditions in Greece, Afghans and others will be at risk - this time on European soil.