“Please don’t forget them”: Refugees and asylum-seekers in squalor in Greece
Earlier this month, I wrote a piece about Alan Mohammad, aged 30, and his 28-year-old sister, Gyan, who both suffer from muscular dystrophy and fled their home in Syria in wheelchairs as fighters from the armed group calling itself Islamic State (IS) closed in on them.
Their arduous journey in search of safety had taken them and their family across four borders. They were shot at on three occasions when they were trying to cross into Turkey and were strapped to the side of a horse in order to cross the mountainous border between Iraq and Turkey.
They paid smugglers to take them on a terrifying journey to the Greek island of Chios in an overcrowded inflatable boat. This week, after having been stranded in Greece since March, they finally had some good news. Not only were they finally able to lodge their claim as asylum seekers, but they were also moved into a hotel by the UN High Commission for Refugees.
Alan and his 28-year-old sister, Gyan, fled their home in Syria in wheelchairs as fighters from the armed group calling itself Islamic State closed in on them
I met Alan, Gyan and their family in July in Ritsona refugee camp, about 60km north of Athens, where they told me about their journey.
“For ‘normal people’ it is very difficult. But for people with disabilities it is like a miracle because all the borders between the two countries [Iraq and Turkey] are mountains,” said Alan. “The boat journey [to Greece] was terrifying. We were in the water for around four hours. Every time I looked around I saw babies and children crying.”
They arrived on the Greek island of Chios on 12 March, just days after the Balkans route to Germany and northern Europe was shut for all asylum-seekers and refugees and before the EU-Turkey migration deal came into effect. Any hopes that they might be permitted to join their father in Germany were dashed. Instead the family were made to board a ferry to the Greek mainland and from there they were taken by bus to Ritsona, an isolated open camp on an abandoned military base situated in the middle of a forest. They have been stranded in extremely harsh conditions there ever since.
Alan and Gyan are just two of some 700 asylum-seekers and refugees stranded in Ritsona and more than 60,000 currently trapped in Greece. Their stories of dangerous flight and their current appalling living conditions amid uncertainty over their future highlight the failures of European nations.
A year ago EU leaders agreed on an emergency relocation scheme to share responsibility for asylum-seekers. They committed to relocate 66,400 asylum-seekers from Greece within two years. But one year on, only around 4,000 people have actually moved to other European countries - a meagre 6% of the total commitment.
Many of those stranded in Greece hope to rely on family reunification rules to relocate them with close family members in Europe, or on visa options to grant them a legal basis for onward movement within Europe. But European states are either stalling or actively resisting efforts to swiftly implement the measures.
Immense and avoidable suffering has been the direct result of Europe’s inaction.
More than 47,000 refugees and asylum-seekers are stranded in mainland Greece, including young children, elderly people, people with serious health problems or disabilities and pregnant women. Many are not being provided with the specialized services they need, putting them at heightened risk.
The majority come from war-torn countries and risked their lives in the sea to come to Europe. They now live in appalling conditions, in tented camps or old warehouses, sleeping on floors for months on end. For many, profound insecurity is a constant factor in their daily lives, even down to getting adequate food.
A further 13,100 people arrived on Greece’s Aegean islands after the implementation of the EU-Turkey migration deal in March 2016. They are stuck in overcrowded camps, living in dreadful conditions while they wait for decisions on their asylum applications.
We are now on another stage of our journey. We don’t know how long we will be here but I hope that soon we will be able to go to Germany to be with my father and my sister
On Monday, after nearly seven months in Greece, Alan, Gyan and their family had their first appointment to lodge an asylum claim and start the process to reunite with their father and sister in Germany. Following this meeting they have been moved from Ritsona to new accommodation with the assistance of the UN High Commission for Refugees. “I feel very happy. I am very happy that me and my brother, sisters and my mother are now in a clean, warm place. It feels as if I have returned to a normal life,” Alan told me when we spoke yesterday. “Living in a tent is not a life.”
But while Alan was happy for his family, his thoughts were with those still in Ritsona. “I feel very sad for all my friends and all the refugees I have left behind. There are children and babies there and they are in a very bad situation…Please don’t forget them.”
Alan remains positive and philosophical about his predicament. “We are now on another stage of our journey. We don’t know how long we will be here but I hope that soon we will be able to go to Germany to be with my father and my sister.”