For the majority of the over 1.2 million migrants who travelled overland from West Asia and Southasia to Europe in 2015 and early 2016, Greece was the front door to Europe. In early 2016, this door was slammed shut for many and distinctions are being made throughout Europe between genuine refugees and “economic migrants” – individuals traveling from countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan in search of a better life, which governments in Europe do not consider tumultuous enough to warrant relocation.
Sitting on a makeshift bench made out of old wooden crates a few metres away from an heap of orange lifejackets on Lesvos Island, 28-year-old Pakistani Ali Raza and his friends look out to the horizon, where just several weeks before they had sailed over on a small dinghy. Less than 20 kilometres away, Turkey is still clearly visible. The faces of these young men are without expression, but they appear to be looking many thousands of miles over the water in front of them.
Lesvos Island is a hotspot for tourists. Its soft winding hills are covered with verdant olive orchards, natural hot springs, and small inns – the sky perfectly blue with white clouds hanging close to the ground. For the refugees on the island, this island of paradise has become a purgatory. They are stuck on the welcome mat of a shut door, unsure what will become of them, and for many, there is no home to return to.
In the months of March and April 2016, I reported from Germany, Greece, and the surrounding Balkan states to follow the path that refugees took as they made their journey to Europe. This article provides a window into the experiences of those who have travelled along this ‘Balkan route’ – Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungry, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria and Germany; the European leg of their journey begins in Greece, and eventually makes it to Berlin, the final destination.
On 20 March 2016, a deal was signed between the European Union (EU) and Turkey that was intended to restrict on the flow of migrants into Europe. Individuals fleeing war and persecution could stay, but those who were not fleeing such conditions were to be sent back to Turkey to, eventually, be repatriated to their home countries.
The deal was a controversial move that drew a distinction between refugees – those who were leaving persecution and danger zones of conflict – and those who were declared “economic migrants”. Overnight thousands of people from Southasia became a pulp that didn’t make it through the filter – they were to be discarded. According to this agreement, human beings would be swapped between governments: one new Syrian refugee sent to Greece for every “economic migrant” that was sent back to Turkey. Aside from being unpalatable for the way that it barters human beings, the deal has also drawn criticism from those who assert that Turkey is not a safe country where people should be sent against their will. Turkey received Euro 6 billion in aid for its role in helping bring an end to the crisis, and, as a bonus, Turkish citizens were granted more relaxed travel throughout the Schengen passport-free zones of the EU. Still, one month after the deal, little had been done to change the situation in Greece. At the time of writing, there are currently over 50,000 refugees stranded in Greece, and of them less than 400 have been sent back to Turkey. Nobody seems to know what will happen next.
Raza came from Gujrat, Pakistan where he worked in a motorbike repair shop. His job was not enough to produce a living wage. “All work, but no fruit,” he lamented. Eventually, he decided to set out alone to see if he could make it to Greece. Raza and other young men like him often come from backgrounds where it was quite difficult to find steady work. Some migrants I interviewed spoke of how they wanted to live in a place that had order and stability.
According to migrants travelling from Afghanistan and Pakistan, the trip, on average, can cost between three to six thousand Euros. Generally, the more one pays, the greater the assurance they have from brokers that they will arrive to their desired destination in Europe. Overland, the most common route for these refugees from Southasia to Europe led through Iran, where many spoke of inhospitable conditions. “In Iran, they gave us no food and no place to sleep,” said the 22-year-old Bilal Baqri, sitting next to Raza on the shore. “We slept without sleeping bags on the streets and passed through as quickly as we could.” Such hardball is common among countries that do not want to become permanent shelters for refugees. By being cold to refugees, these countries gain a reputation of being inhospitable to migrants, which is exactly what they are hoping for.
Once in Turkey, food and shelter is more abundant – there is a greater presence of INGOs and the government uses some of the six billion Euros the EU sanctioned as aid to take care of the refugees. But it is not a place where migrants want to stay for too long. Another Pakistani in Lesvos, 24-year-old Mohamed Hassan spoke of how police in Turkey would often detain refugees for no reason. “My friends and I were beaten and detained, and released within a day, but they stole our passports and all of our money.”
From Turkish port cities such as Izmir, Mersin, and Dikili, refugees then take a boat to islands in Greece. How much one pays local brokers determines the boat one gets –anything from a small raft to a private speedboat. Most refugees I spoke with claimed that they were tricked into paying prices for a better mode of transportation when the reality was that they were all crammed onto small boats. Though most pay for ‘insured packages’, where they are not charged for their services until they reach a certain agreed-upon point of arrival in Europe, there are instanced reported of brokers tipping off pirates with the time and location of the boats so that they can rob the refugees and split the profits.
Though the distance between the Turkish mainland and the closest Greek islands is not much, the trip can be treacherous due to rough waters and weather conditions (Some migrants spoke of brokers who charged them extra to travel when the weather conditions were ideal). So far in 2016, more than 460 people have died or gone missing while attempting this trip across the Mediterranean Sea – over a third of the over 1361 people who have died or gone missing along the entire Balkan route this year.
Uncertainty in Lesvos
Most of the refugees who now occupy Lesvos are based in the government-run camp of Moria. Once a camp where refugees could walk in and out daily and one that was given massive assistance from international NGOs, (with the passing of the agreement between the EU and Turkey,) Moria became a detention centre overnight. NGOs like Doctors Without Borders (MSF) removed themselves from the camp, citing that it was against their policies to contribute to a detention centre. Inhabitants of Moria are no longer able to leave its barb-wired fortress, and deportation back to Turkey looms on the horizon for those inside who are not legally declared refugees and who have not sought asylum in Greece.
Outside of Moria are the remnants of a volunteer-run camp that was known as ‘Better Days for Moria,’ on a place known to those who frequented the camps as “Afghan Hill” for its high populations of Afghans. The camp was quite obviously a place where people had received a lot of care. The tents erected in this camp were unique, in the style of Native American teepees. Music and art were encouraged and the environment felt more like a music festival than a refugee camp. Now, the camp looks abandoned.
I was there during the last days that the camp was under operation. By this time, most of the inhabitants had already turned themselves in to police voluntarily. A few were taken in the night by force, while others fled to the hills to avoid detention for as long as possible. On 23 March, the final day of the camp’s operation, I watched one man who was probably in his mid-40s break down into sobs as he hugged the volunteers he had befriended at this camp and made his way to the barbed wired interior of Moria. It was most likely a definitive end to his journey, but at least it was a closure that enabled him to move on with his life. Refugees sent to Moria are one step closer to finding out if they can be accepted for asylum in Greece or if they will be sent back to Turkey.
At this point, closure is all that some hope for. “Either send me home or send me forward,” said 25-year-old Pakistani Muhammed Hiraj. “I just want to know how I can move on to live my life.”
A ten-minute drive southeast of Moria, near the port of Mytilene, is the last free non-governmental camp on the island, the ‘No Border Kitchen’, where some are still holding on to the hope that they will be allowed to enter the European mainland. This is where Raza and his friends were based.
Large ferries with hundreds of passengers leave the port of Mytilene regularly for the Piraeus port in Athens, but because their presence in Greece is deemed illegal, this is not an option for those currently residing at the No Border Kitchen. Though they are not detained behind any walls, the island itself is their prison.
The No Border Kitchen is run entirely by international volunteers and refugees with no government oversight. There are currently around 250 refugees inhabiting this camp, mostly single men from Pakistan. Only two women are currently based at the camp, one of whom is a professional MMA fighter from Morocco. Joe Eckerson, 52, an American from the state of Washington, is one of the core supervising volunteers who has been working at the camp for several months. “What we are doing is technically illegal, and we know that we’ll eventually be shut down,” Eckerson explains.
“The police have paid the camp visits on multiple occasions, but they know that this camp is providing services that they can not. For now it seems that we will be allowed to stay – for how long though, no one is sure.”
One of the biggest frustrations of this camp is the lack of available toilets. The camp is not legal, so it has not been given any permits to set up toilet facilities – anyone who wants to use the toilet has to walk over half a kilometre to the nearby port of Mytilene.
Each day at the No Border Kitchen begins with a call of updates relevant to migration and a call of what duties need to be performed for the day. These volunteer duties range from cleaning up the beach, to construction of additional tents from cannibalised pieces of donated tents from other camps, to cooking.
Among all tasks, Raza enjoys cooking the most. He has to sometimes compete with Moroccans who also like to be in charge, so now they cook on alternate days. There is not much to do at the camp, and most of the time is spent just looking out back at the horizon on the island that they came from. Most reflect on their journey, not wanting to believe that this could be the end. Ferries take off regularly to leave for Piraeus port in Athens – they are symbols of the dream that many hold of reaching mainland Europe, a dream that might never be realized.
Athens: Arrival in Mainland Europe
Boarding a ferry in Lesvos in the evening, one can arrive early in the morning in Athens, where before spring refugees could be found sleeping in public areas such as Victoria Park and Omonia square. Now tourist season has come, however, and although there is still not a permanent solution of where to house refugees, the government has made clear that it will do anything that it can to make sure that their presence does not affect tourism. Greece, already in dire straits financially, relies on tourism to contribute to 18 percent of the country’s GDP. In spite of the refugee crisis, the Greek Tourism Confederation expects the number of visitors to Greece to top a record 25 million in 2016.
Greece cannot afford to let refugees affect her income, so the streets have been cleared of its refugees. Without a clear long-term strategy of how to deal with this crisis, however, the cleaning job is not well-mediated. It seems rather like a child who is told to clean his room and has thrown all of his toys in the closet to make it appear that there is order, at least superficially. The clean streets appeal to the narrow fields of vision of the passing tourists.
In Athens, the bulk of the refugees have been quarantined off at the port of Piraeus, and the area which they inhabit is increasingly hidden from the public eye. Without prior knowledge, passersby just outside the gates of Piraeus would have no idea that over 4000 refugees were living there. Living in Athens allows refugees with money, the convenience of being near stores where they can buys essentials. Piraeus is not an official camp designed to hold human beings long-term however, and the hardships encountered there are harsh.
At the time of writing, the condition at this port was such that there were only three showers for the 4000 people occupying the ports. The Greek government is reluctant to provide assistance in developing these unofficial camps due to their central location, as they do not want refugees to be located permanently in a place where passersby can see them.
Another option for refugees living in Athens, that the government is trying to encourage, is to be sent to government-run camps such as Malakasa. Such camps are the Greek government’s first attempts to provide for long-term housing of refugees, and according to some, this shows.
Vicki Tsouris is a Greek volunteer who has been working full-time at these ports to help make the situation for the refugees there more tolerable. According to Tsouris, many refugees leave to stay at the government camps, but quickly return after finding out that they are incomplete and unable to provide basic sanitary living conditions. “[The refugees] want to be in the place where they can live a good life in Greece, but so far such a place does not exist,” Tsouris said.
The Greeks are unsure about what to do about the presence of 50,000 migrants stuck in their country, and the truth is that most of the migrants in Greece are also unsure about Greece. “We know that Greece is suffering from a bad economy, and although we are thankful for their help, the truth is that most of us do not want to stay here,” says 28-year-old Mohammed Hussein.
To maximise their chances of making it into Western Europe, many camp out to the closest place possible: the northern border at the town of Idomeni.
Once a population of just a little over 200, occupied mostly by elderly residents, the town of Idomeni in the northern Kilkis region of Greece has become inhabited by over 12,000 refugees who are waiting out in hopes that the borders will open. There was no indication that this will happen. People here though, unsure of the future, wanted to get a fair shot at getting in. “We want to be sure that when it does happen, we are at the closest place possible” says 38-year-old Aasif Amin from Kabul.
Most are camped out in tents deigned for short hiking excursions, not living. In the cold final months of winter, each day would begin with the sounds of children coughing and crying. After a visit to the camp in March 2016, Greek Interior Minister Panayotis Kouroumblis compared the camp to the Nazi concentration camps of WWII, calling it a “modern Dachau” and that its existence was the result of “closed border logic.”
In Idomeni, cultures swirl as refugees from all over the world are thrown into the same environment. Language barriers set people apart, but inevitably cultures are brought into contact with one another to mingle. A new kind of refuge exists in Idomeni where there are moments and days where it is possible to live in a world where social class and cultural distinctions are erased. Children kick footballs unconcerned about country or religious background, and, throughout the day, many sit side-by-side drinking coffee and passing time as they look out upon the green fields that stretch below the Macedonian mountains.
Cultural rifts do exist, however, especially between Arab refugees from Syria and Southasians from Afghanistan and Pakistan. “The Syrians see themselves as better than us,” says Amin. “They think that they are more cultured than us because they travel and used to have people from all over the world visit their country before the war.” Without much to do, fighting is sometimes an outlet for pent-up energy among the youth. During a campfire conversation with a Kurdish Syrian family that I was camping with, we heard howls of mobs rage in the distance. Some nights, fights rage unabated.
Such conflicts are often sparked by rumours and escalate quickly to extreme proportions that can involve hundreds of individuals. One of the biggest fights that occurred between Syrians and Afghans when I was there took place after the alleged rape of a small five-year-old Syrian girl by an Afghan man. The accused was badly beaten and bloody fights erupted. The next day, I spoke with a police officer about the events. According to this officer, the accused claimed that he had only tried to enter a toilet. The door was unlocked, and a small girl was inside. Naturally, she became frightened and screamed, and onlookers assumed the worst. The facts remain unclear.
Having such events take place in the small town of Idomeni is not easy for local residents. “We are not at all against the refugees; we just want the [Greek] government to come up with a plan so that we can go back to normal life,” said Dimitri Stoidis, a farmer whose home is directly adjacent to the refugee camp. When I met Stoidis, he was begging two Pakistanis to move away from his yard, to which they replied that they were only burning tinder to stay warm.
A great deal has been spoken about extreme xenophobes in Greece such as the Golden Dawn neo-Nazi party, but very often the reality on the ground is that while people sympathise with the refugees they just want their village to go back to normal. Their frustration is not so much with the refugees, but with the government for failing to provide a clear solution to the crisis. The reality is that nobody knows what will happen, and it seems that Germany, the country that accepted the bulk of the refugees in 2015, has already accepted more than it can handle. The German people are divided on the refugee crisis; with events such as the Cologne rapes creating a great deal of apprehension as calls for restricting the inflow of migration become louder.
Given the pressure to crackdown on refuges using this border point as a passage into Europe, on 25 May 2016, Greek authorities began removing hundreds of refugees from Idomeni, on the border with Macedonia. In the first day itself, more than 2000 refugees were shifted by bus to state-run encampments near Thessaloniki, the second-largest city of Greece. Reports indicate that families transported to these new military-run camps are unable to access basic amenities such as running water and electricity and that they have been living in warehouses “not fit for animals.”
For many refugees in Greece, Germany is the light at the end of the tunnel that they have heard will grant them lives of prosperity. For those who have made it to Germany, however, many are finding that life there is not as easy as they had thought it would be.
Berlin: The light at the end
Berlin is a world away from for those in Idomeni who live in tents and have to make fires at night to stay warm. The capital city is clean and unpolluted, has public transportation and safe drinking water on tap, and if one has the initiative, is also a place where one can convert one’s mental energies into tangible opportunities.
Refugees registered with the government receive housing and several hundred euros a month to cover basic living expenses. Refugees are expected to learn the German language before they apply for work or education opportunities, and free classes are offered to make this possible. In 2015, the German government extended open arms to over 1 million refugees, but now many are questioning whether or not these arms were extended too wide.
Registration with Landesamt für Gesundheit und Soziales (LaGeSo), the refugee registration centre in Berlin, can take months. Frustrations with LaGeSo are common, but its small facilities were never designed to process the enormous number of refugees that have flooded into the country. Less than half of the over one million refugees that came to Germany in 2015 are officially registered as legal refugees with the government, and of those that are, thousands are living in temporary shelters packed with other refugees that they have often have no prior connection with.
One of the main shelters is in the abandoned Tempelhoff airport, where there are over 3000 people living in what were previously airport hangers. This is the first place of residence for most refugees who make it to Berlin. But the illusion of Berlin soon disappears.
“I was told that Berlin was the best place to be in Europe, and [it was only] when I found myself living in a single room with thousands of other people that I realised that my dreams were only dreams,” said Mohammed Shahnawaz from Afghanistan. “Life here is a lot more difficult than I thought it would be.”
In Berlin, many refugees who have settled in this new country spend their time helping new arrivals acclimate to the new conditions. Within the vicinity of LaGeSo are a number of volunteer organisations, one of them is Moabit Hilft.
The atmosphere in Moabit Hilft and around the premises of LaGeSo is, like Idomeni, a mixing of cultures and languages. Christine Beckmann, one of the long-time volunteers at the camp (who refuses to call herself a coordinator and insists that they are all equal) is a motherly figure known by seemingly everyone within the LaGeSo area.
“Refugees come here to offer whatever help they can to new arrivals because they were once in the same situation,” explains Beckmann. “They remember what it was like to come here and feel lost in a new place.” Such is the case with 24-year-old Mohammad Soltani, who fled from the dangers of Khost, Afghanistan. “When I arrived in Berlin four months ago, I spoke absolutely no German and knew nothing of where I needed to go to survive here,” Soltani recalled. “Then I met a German man, and he knew immediately that I was lost. He asked where I was from, and with the most warm smile that you can imagine, he said ‘you are welcome here. I will help you.’” Soltani was nearly in tears by the time he had finished describing it to me.
“When I saw the other refugees around LaGeSo, I knew that they were just like me and I just wanted to help. This German man showed me so much kindness, and I try to make others who are lost in this new world feel the same warmth that I felt from his kindness.”
A great deal of the human element of the experience in this migration is inevitably lost when we create terms to describe living beings. When I asked Beckmann what she felt was the number one thing that she felt people misunderstand about the refugee crisis, her reply was: “That there are no refugees. There are only people.”
Raza and his friends in Lesvos continue to pass their days by the shore, unsure if they will ever even make it to the European mainland. The hardships encountered in places like Idomeni are a world away for them, but even the thought of being further along the route than they are now, remains a distant dream.
“The only direction that we have to look is forward,” says a hopeful Ali, his hair getting blown around by the rising sea breeze. “We must all find our way.”
~ David Caprara is a multimedia journalist who was based in the Balkans during the spring of 2016 . Previous work includes publications with Al Jazeera America, VICE, The Atlantic, NBC News, and USA Today. He writes a monthly column for the Kathmandu Post. Follow David Caprara on Twitter @Caprarad