For disillusioned refugees in Greece, no easy solution

Story posted May 6, 2016 in News, Greece by Megan Henney

LESBOS, Greece – The first time Ramiar Farajpour tried to cross the six-mile stretch from Turkey to Lesbos, the raft he was in capsized. He watched three women drown before the Turkish coast guard yanked him out of the choppy Aegean Sea.

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The second time, the Turkish police caught him before he even reached the water. Poorer the $1,500 he had paid to smugglers, he was forced to concede defeat once more.

The third time, Farajpour successfully reached Lesbos, where he remained for about 30 days before moving on to Athens as part of the human wave of refugees, migrants and displaced persons fleeing turmoil in the Middle East.  

Now, he speaks of his experiences with a casual indifference – “I wasn’t scared. I’ve seen everything,” he said by way of explanation – pausing only when he talks about his family, who could not afford to leave with him.

“Every time I hear the voice of my mother, or of my father, it’s not good,” he said. “It was so sad. They were scared I’d be dead in the water.”

In what has become the worst migrant crisis in Europe since World War II, Greece has borne the brunt of the migrant arrivals.

Across the country, more than 37,000 migrants like Farajpour are waiting for a decision from the government about what their future.

For most, the journey to escape is just the beginning of a frustratingly long and complicated process that will likely end in deportation for those who are not among the favored nationalities, Syrians and Iraqis,  who are given priority.

All that Farajpour, a tattoo artist, knows is what he doesn’t know:

How he’ll reach the Netherlands since the Macedonian border closed; when – or if – he’ll see his family again since they did not flee with him; what will happen to him since his registration papers expired and his legal right to remain in Greece ended with it.

“I want to tell my story to all of the world,” Farajpour said. “We are not a danger. We are in danger.”

The plight that Farajpour faces – tantalizingly close to his envisioned future, yet trapped at a standstill in a country that can ill-afford to take on the financial burden of so many migrants – is becoming ever more common with each passing day.  

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“It’s super messy,” said Ayesha Keller, 26 and one of the core coordinators at Better Days for Moria, an unofficial refugee camp in Lesbos that consists of dirt floors and hastily pitched tents. “At the moment, realistically, there’s not much hope for anyone.”

Like Farajpour, most migrants arri­ve on rubber dinghies,  scared, cold and soaking wet, at one of the Greek islands just a few miles off the Turkish coast.

Lesbos, only six miles from Turkey, is a tourist destination turned escape route, and has been left to grapple with how to accommodate the influx of people.

Smugglers in Turkey, taking advantage of the vulnerable, charge up to $1,500 per person for the passage to Greece.

This year alone, more than 400 migrants have drowned in the Eastern Mediterranean while en route to Greece from Turkey, said Boris Cheshirkov, the Lesbos-based United Nations Refugee Agency representative.

As it became increasingly clear that the flow of migrants into Greece, and the rest of Europe, would not slow, a desperate EU agreed on a “one in, one out” policy in partnership with Turkey. Passed in mid-March, the deal holds that for each asylum-seeker sent forward, one will be sent back to Turkey.

Fully aware of the implications of this deal, few refugees arrive on the island now – sometimes only two boats per day, said Amy Pappajohn, a 32-year-old American volunteering on Lesbos.

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The international volunteers who once waited on the rocky coasts of Lesbos for refugees to arrive are packing up and heading elsewhere – Athens, or Idomeni, the Greek village closest to the Macedonian border where refugees are quickly bottlenecking.

Better Days for Moria, a once thriving camp that extended services to people ranked at the bottom of the EU’s hierarchical nationality totem pole, packed up and began to investigate volunteer options in Athens shortly after the EU-Turkey deal, Pappajohn said.

“Obviously the flow has almost stopped here, and we can’t wait around,” she said said. “We have to continue as well.”

For the refugees just reaching the steppingstone into Europe, new, more stringent processes exist: In order to have an asylum claim processed, they must now undergo an admissibility test by the Greek government to determine whether their claim is legitimate, or whether Turkey is a safe third country for them to return to, said Pappajohn.

A key element for a country to be considered a “safe third country” is that no risk of forcible repatriation to a person’s country of origin exists – but some human rights organizations contend that Turkey is forcibly repatriating non-Syrians to their countries of origin, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Morocco and

If refugees do pass the admissibility test, they will then undergo another interview with the Greek government about their substantive claim for protection, which may or may not be approved.

Refugees no longer have the option of staying in Moria, a former prison turned refugee camp, that bustles with activity outside of its heavily fenced and walls marked by graffiti.

It’s a depressing and solemn place to live, if only for a few days. Closed to all but migrants and volunteers, Moria is the place where all migrants must go to register – but lacks basic necessities like enough food, shelter and medical supplies, said Pappajohn.

“There’s also been a report from our guy on the inside [of Moria] that when they went for food distribution, there were like ethnic gangs, more or less, throwing stones at people,” Pappajohn said. “It got violent. The volunteers had to run. It’s bad.”

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Most migrants must wait at least several days before they can register due to the heavy influx of people in such a small area. At the end of the process – which includes being fingerprinted and having their information entered into an online database – migrants are issued papers that allow them to stay in Greece for either 30 days or six months.

Typically, Syrians and Iraqis – who have priorities as refugees – are granted the lengthier stay in Greece, said Cheshirkov. But for nationalities like Afghans, Pakistanis, Lebanese, Iranians and Moroccans – viewed as economic migrants, not refugees – 30 days is the maximum.

“There’s been a lot of talk, not only in Europe but also in the U.S. and elsewhere, that this is a migrant crisis. Immigrants are coming through,” Cheshirkov said. “That’s not the case. This is, by all accounts, a refugee crisis.”

But, the process for relocation and asylum only becomes more difficult and confusing for migrants after registration.

No monolithic procedure exists, and whether or not a person is considered to be a refugee or an economic migrant can boil down to several factors: whether they’re a man or a woman; whether they’re traveling alone; which country they’re from and which city they’re from, said Keller.

Migrants waiting – sometimes for weeks on end – at the overflow camp, Better Days for Moria,  staged a peaceful protest down the street one sunny afternoon in March, demanding that Europe opens its eyes and its borders.

Signs, with common themes like “we are humans, not numbers” and “where are our rights?” painted on them, were thrust into the air by migrants, many of whom said they resented being classified as an economic migrant.

It’s a point commonly emphasized by camp volunteers and migrants alike: the migrants did not flee – and in turn risk their life – for no reason.

“They’re seen as economic migrants, and maybe to a certain extent they are,” said Keller. She’s jaunty and vibrant, idealistic – abandoning her corporate job in Scotland to volunteer in Lesbos – yet grounded.

“But to me, I think if I was dying of poverty because I couldn’t feed my children, then of course I’m going to look to move. Just because they aren’t in a war torn place doesn’t mean they’re not in a bad position,” she said.

Mohammad Assadi, a tall and stoic 26-year-old from Ahwaz, Iran, said he fled from the military because he was about to be sent to Syria to fight.

“If I go back,” he said, “They’re going to hang me.”

Now, like Farajpour, Assadi is waiting for the improbable: the Macedonian border, which shut in February, to open indiscriminately to all nationalities.

Another option for migrants, as opposed to crossing through Macedonia, is to enter the EU’s relocation scheme, said Cheshirkov.

Approved by the European Commission, the plan holds that over the course of two years, 160,000 migrants will be relocated from Greece and Italy to other EU member states.

Under the program, people are dispersed to other European countries so they can apply for asylum; as a result, only those nationalities that receive a six month long stay in Greece can enter the relocation program, he said.

It’s been slow to start, however. Few European countries have made substantial pledges, and as a result, only several hundred people have actually been relocated. Despite this, the UNHCR still views the scheme as an encouraging step towards a cohesive plan to address the crisis.

“Not withstanding the fact that this program has been slow to start, it’s important to recognize that this has been an important step in a positive direction,” Cheshirkov said.

Concerns from the lack of an effective, legal entry point to Europe have emerged since the deal was struck, with fears that it could spur more migrants to cross illegally into Europe with the help of smugglers.

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This could mean new routes open in which migrants illegally cross through the Albanian border, or that they cross the Mediterranean Sea in order to reach Italy, Keller said.

Farajpour, living sporadically between hostels and volunteers’ apartments in Athens, works as a translator – he speaks Farsi, Kurdish and English – and created a crowdsourcing page to raise the money to pay for an illegal smuggler.

“Now in Greece, you can find a smuggler easier than you can flour,” he said. He has friends who are departing Greece soon, walking through Albania in hopes of reaching Italy.

But Farajpour thinks back to the nightmarish experience of crossing the Aegean. He thinks of the women, dead in the water. He thinks of the brutality he experienced at the hands of the Turkish police.

“I don’t want to kill myself,” he said. “I killed myself one time. It’s enough for me.”

When migrants were still arriving in masses at Better Days for Moria, Keller would pull them aside and let them know that their chances of being granted asylum anywhere are slim and that, most likely, they will be deported.

“It’s very, very dangerous, which is why we really try to warn people and encourage them not to do it,” she said. “However, at the end of the day, if there aren’t other legal options, what are they supposed to do?”

Migrants who arrive hopeful about their new lives quickly become disillusioned with the direness of the situation, with the lack of options available to them.

“We can’t go back to our country,” Farajpour said. “We can’t go to Europe. We’re stuck.” TWVtYmVycyBvZiB0aGUgdm9sdW50ZWVyIGdyb3VwIElzcmEtQWlkIHNjb3VyIHRoZSBzb3V0aGVybiBzaG9yZWxpbmUgb2YgTGVzYm9zLCBHcmVlY2UgZm9yIGluY29taW5nIHJlZnVnZWVzIGluIE1hcmNoIDIwMTYuIFNpbmNlIHRoZSBFVSBhbmQgVHVya2V5IHN0cnVjayBhIGRlYWwgb24gcmVmdWdlZXMsIGZldyBhcmUgc3RpbGwgYXJyaXZpbmcgb24gdGhlIGlzbGFuZCwgYW5kIG1hbnkgdm9sdW50ZWVycyBoYXZlIGFsc28gZGVwYXJ0ZWQuIChQaG90byBieSBNZWdhbiBIZW5uZXkp

Members of the volunteer group Isra-Aid scour the southern shoreline of Lesbos, Greece for incoming refugees in March 2016. Since the EU and Turkey struck a deal on refugees, few are still arriving on the island, and many volunteers have also departed. (Photo by Megan Henney)