‘They told me I would be free’

Ahmed has a haunted look about him as he sits on the end of a bed in the dark, damp police cell. He’s been held there for nearly a week. His eyes are red from crying, and dart around looking for something to fix on.

But there is little in the cell except eight tightly packed beds with dirty mattresses and a pile of sleeping bags. The walls are bare, but for a few scrawled words above one bed −“Allah” written in Arabic, in fading ink. Above another, “Thank you, my Somali and Afghan friends”.

Dungeon-like cellsThese words are testament to how these dungeon-like cells, designed to hold suspected criminals, are now also being used as detention centre for migrants. There’s no room to walk around, nothing to do, very little natural light and no outside space. It’s completely unfit for human habitation.

I’m in the police station on the Greek island of Lesvos with Amnesty’s Greece and Cyprus campaigner, Giorgos Kosmopoulos, and migration researcher Irem Arf. We are hoping some of the refugees and migrants locked up here will tell us about their experiences of trying to get into the European Union (EU). We are trying to build a picture of the overall situation at the Greek border with Turkey.

When the guards let Ahmed out of the cell to talk to us, we learn that he is a refugee fleeing Syria, aged only 21. He is clearly traumatized. His eyes fill with tears as he tells us his mother was killed in the civil war last December. With his father already dead and his sister studying abroad, he paid a smuggler thousands of dollars to take him from Turkey across the Aegean sea to Greece and, he hoped, to safety and a better life.

“In Turkey they told me that in Greece I would be free, but when I got here I was put in jail,” he said.

Taking bigger risks Ahmed is one of tens of thousands of people trying to reach safety in Europe via Greece every year. Many of those arriving by boat on islands like Lesvos and Chios have fled conflict in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq or Somalia.

Irem says no one knows exactly how many people are taking the dangerous route across the sea. But police figures show numbers have increased since land crossings along the river Evros on the Greek border with Turkey were tightened last year.

“People fleeing war and poverty are now taking even bigger risks to get to Europe. The routes are increasingly dangerous, so people are losing their lives on the way,” she says.

We heard stories of terrifying, freezing cold night crossings. One woman told us how she fell into the sea. She couldn’t swim and kept drifting away from the boat. A fellow migrant risked his life to save her. Another woman told us her four-year old daughter fell into the sea during the chaos when their small inflatable boat was intercepted by the coastguard. Luckily, the girl survived.

And they, unbelievably, are the lucky ones. In March, six Syrians drowned when their boat got into difficulties, among them a pregnant 17-year-old and a mother with her young children. And in December last year, a boat capsized and 27 refugees, mostly Afghans, drowned close to the shore at Mytilene, Lesvos’ capital. Only a 16-year-old boy survived.

Those who do make it, like Ahmed, face shocking treatment. We heard stories of children, and people with disabilities being detained in squalid, overcrowded cells. Those who aren’t detained are often left to sleep in the streets.

Amnesty staff hear many harrowing stories on visits like these. “It can be difficult to deal with what you are hearing and seeing,” Giorgos says, “but you need to stay calm to get the facts right, identify the problem and what needs to change.”

A community coming togetherThere is some light to this darker side of Greece. Through a community project, people of Lesvos have opened a disused children’s holiday camp to give refugees and migrants safe shelter in wooden chalets. Around a hundred families in Mytilene take turns to cook for people staying there. There is a football pitch, a children’s playground and plenty of space to wander among the silver birch trees.

The project was originally set up to support locals made homeless by the financial crisis. But the organisers soon realised others in their midst also needed help. “There were so many refugees in the streets in November last year and the weather was so bad that the authorities let us open this place,” says Efi latsoudi, a volunteer, as she shows me around.

“But everything depends on the volunteers. We’ve asked for support from the municipality and the ministry responsible for immigration. That would be such a relief for local people, who want to help but who are also in a crisis. But we haven’t had anything,” she says.

A better life?Many refugees and migrants we meet say how grateful they are to those providing them with food and shelter. But they all feel stuck on Lesvos, desperate to travel on to Athens.

They are frustrated about unexplained delays in processing the papers that would allow them to leave. They believe that things might get better in Athens.

Sadly, the reality is very different. Migrants in the Greek capital are increasingly targeted in racist attacks. Far-right parties like Golden Dawn have gained public support amid the crippling economic crisis. Migrants risk being stopped by police in sweep operations and hauled off to squalid detention centres. Many people we speak to later in Athens have spent months, up to a year, behind bars.

Many people in Greece today are horrified at how the authorities are treating migrants, and the rise in racism and xenophobia. For people like the volunteers on Lesvos, and the thousands who protested against racist violence in Athens earlier this year, the flame of the ancient Greek concept of filoxenia − kindness to strangers − still burns bright. For others, like Ahmed, it is turning out to be a little more than a flicker.

This story was originally published in the July/August edition of The Wire.