SEATTLE, Washington — Greece is located on the edge of the Mediterranean, serving as a gateway to the European world. Today, it serves as the door to the promise of a better life for refugees from war-torn countries in the Middle East like Syria and Iran. However, following more and more restrictive immigration policies from countries like Germany and Norway, many have found themselves trapped and forced to make a home in a country becoming increasingly less welcoming to refugees in Greece. Here is more information about the reality for refugees in Greece.
Greece is one of the most highly populated countries in terms of refugees. In 2019 alone, more than 75,000 immigrants landed in the Greek islands seeking asylum. This was a 48 percent increase from 2018 even though it’s only three years after the height of the crisis. The influx of refugees has resulted in overcrowding in the refugee camps located around the country, but mostly on the islands. Most of these camps force asylum seekers to live in deplorable conditions where disease runs rampant and resources are scarce.
The Reality for Refugees in Greece
Moria, one of the camps on the island of Lesbos, was coined the “Island of Despair” by the New York Times. The camp contains roughly 5,000 people, more than 2,000 more than it was originally designed to hold. Due to the slow, bureaucratic process of asylum approval, the number of refugees in Greece only continues to grow while conditions continue to worsen.
At Moria, refugees wait for their asylum applications to be approved so they can enter mainland Greece or denied, which forces them to return to Turkey. There is an option to return back to their war-torn countries; however, the hope of what lies ahead and the fear of what was behind means that most people do not make this choice. They would rather stay in Greece even when the electricity shuts off, the hot water doesn’t come and the food runs out.
Greece has been host to more than 90,000 refugees. They are unable to move further into Europe due to the restrictive immigration laws and barbed wire fences put in place by Greece’s neighbors. The country’s weakened economic status is the main reason why it is difficult to find the resources to feed and house these refugees in camps. The lucky ones, those who reach mainland Greece, enter its dense cities with almost nothing. Reaching Turkey, let alone Greece, requires many families to sell all their earthly possessions and spend every penny in the process.
In the spirit of resourcefulness, refugees in Greece have repurposed abandoned buildings in major cities and turned them into true international centers. For instance, the neighborhood of Exarcheia in Athens has become a place where refugees from all areas of Africa, Asia and the Middle East have come together and formed a community.
One of the great community centers for refugees in Greece is called Melissa. Located in Athens, it perfectly represents this idea of people from around the world coming together to help each other. Melissa is a day
center run by migrant women for migrant women. It devotes its resources to providing self-defense classes, counseling and artistic opportunities.
Since 2014, the grassroots organization has helped women from more than 45 different countries find their place and new life in Greece. Melissa’s emphasis on individuality and the role of each person in the community empowers women who have lost so much by showing them how much they still have to contribute and gain. This leaves the whole neighborhood buzzing with activity and a sense of hope.
Greece’s Government Ordering Raids
The neighborhoods like Exarcheia consist of refugees squatting in otherwise uninhabited buildings, which is technically illegal. They never received any consequences under the previous government since their presence had no negative consequences. However, in the elections early in 2019, Greece elected a right-wing government to the Greek Parliament headed by conservative President Kostas Bakoyannis. Later that year, Bakoyannis ordered raids on four buildings in Exarcheia that were focused on evicting and detaining the squatters. These raids arrested 143 people, mostly women and children. They were taken to detention centers and have since been returned to the inadequate, crowded refugee camps.
The new nationalist agenda that encouraged these police raids comes from a place of economic insecurity and xenophobia. The right-wing government entered power with promises of lowering taxes and improving the job market in order to help the average Greek citizen after years of shaky finances across the country. Many people blamed instability on the influx of refugees in Greece placing a strain on already limited resources, especially since said resources weren’t being given to “Greeks.”
Greece’s New Government
The rich cultural history of Greece gives intense feelings of pride to some of its citizens in their heritage. These sentiments can be construed into nationalist tendencies. Since there are so many more people who are obviously not Greek in the country today, these nationalist feelings have been more and more expressed.
The Golden Dawn, the neo-Nazi party of Greece, had 7 percent of the seats in Parliament in 2012, which coincided with the period of the most immigrant activity in Greece. Today, the group no longer has seats in Parliament, but the threat is still there. Allegations of Golden Dawn members murdering the anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas have sparked a legal investigation into every aspect of the party. But, its presence alone is a reason for many immigrants to fear for their lives under a government that is closer to these fascist ideas than it used to be.
The fact that so many refugees in Greece had gone from survival to making a life for themselves is inspiring to say the least. However, under the new right-wing government, it’s difficult to predict how the reality for refugees in Greece will change in the coming years. The advent of more conservative governments in other countries has led to increasingly xenophobic, anti-immigrant trends. These trends are causing the most vulnerable people even more suffering than they’ve experienced. Being “trapped” in Greece may not sound bad to tourists, but when there are tangible barbed wire fences surrounding people, the outlook is very different.
– Anna Sarah Langlois
Photo: Wikimedia Commons