I have read about and heard many stories about the awful state of the refugee camps in Greece — all of which indicate that the country’s government cannot handle the situation. But when I saw it with my own eyes, I realized how catastrophic the situation really is.
Most of the camps are located miles away from the city. They are polluted and dirty and full of disease. Refugees have no way of making them more sanitary, and they do not have adequate access to medicine. Most of the refugees shelter in tents to protect themselves from the cold of winter and the rainy days. They have no option but to stay there and wait.
I wanted to visit these camps that had turned into hubs for immigrants trying to get to Western Europe. From Athens’ city center to one of them, Inofetya, is about an hour’s drive. As I drove further from the city, the landscape turned flat and there was nothing around apart from a factory every few miles. There were no grocery stores, no pharmacies, no clinics. I saw the camp gates from afar, a place that hosts hundreds of asylum seekers living their lives under the most difficult conditions. I finally arrived and parked next to the main entrance. The first thing I noticed was the sounds of children playing and of infants crying.
“How many people live in this camp?” I asked the gatekeeper. “Around 800 or 1000, with newborns adding to the number every day,” he replied. He told me there were about 150 pregnant women living in the camp.
“I Will Expose the Greek Government for What They do to us"
I passed through the yard. There were UN tents on both sides, children peeking out of them out of curiosity, wanting to see who the new lady walking through the camp was. A few Arab men sat in front of a building, chatting with one other. When I approached them, they invited me to join them for tea. A 55-year-old Iraqi man started telling me his story, sometimes in English and other times in Arabic.
He started with the war between Iran and Iraq, and introduced himself as a political activist who works against wars and destruction. He said he did not like his country’s politics and has been living away from home for the last two years, seeking asylum. Like other asylum seekers, he had traveled the dangerous route through Turkey to Greece. When he found out I was Iranian, he told me about an Iranian woman who had been on his journey and who had helped him when he needed it most. “If that lady had not helped me, I would not be alive today. I was falling off a cliff and she grabbed my hand. With the help of others, she dragged me up.” He showed me his ankle, which he had injured during the incident.
There was a moment of silence and then he asked: “Now, you, who comes from the West and has seen other places, tell us: How is the asylum-seeking life after this? Is there any place out there worse than Greece?” I shook my head and replied: “No, as far as I have experienced, the asylum-seeking life in this country is the worst.”
“I’ll eventually reach my destination and then I will expose the Greek government,” he told me, smiling. “This government should be exposed for what they do to us.” Some of the other men shook their heads in agreement. “There is nothing here in the camp. We don’t know how long we will stay here. There is no one accountable or a person in charge to answer our questions. They have not given us our money cards [to buy food and provisions] and only registered us as refugees to get the benefits for themselves. This is a war zone. People from numerous nationalities and different cultures have to live here and there are fights every night. We have to provide everything for ourselves, from food to warm clothes.”
Another man showed me his injured shin. “We don’t even have access to medicine. When a fight breaks out, you have no other option but to fight to survive,” he told me.
His three-year-old couldn’t stop scratching from the mosquitos in the camp. Her father asked me in Arabic if I could get them anything to help with the itching and to keep them from being bit. “Is there any pharmacy around?” I asked. “Pharmacy? The closest one to here is an hour and a half away,” another person told me. “We have no money or means of transportation to get there. How can we get our medicine? We have many injuries.”
I drank my tea and promised the father I would come back with the medicine they needed. Then I visited another building in the camp. It was very crowded, and someone had set up a little food market in the middle. In another corner, I saw a group of men shaving in a little barbershop. An Afghan woman greeted me at the entrance, and invited me to see the room where she was staying. There were beds all around the room, and a woman was in the middle of it breastfeeding her two-week-old infant. Someone poured me some tea and the baby’s mother said: “I went into labor about two weeks ago. There was no doctor around, so we told the gatekeeper that I was close to giving birth. I was in pain for a few hours until a doctor came, and I gave birth to my child in this room. But it’s not sanitary, just look at the bathrooms.”
I went to the washroom. There was dirty water on the floor, soaking my feet. Feces and urine were everywhere, and the place was infested with flies and mosquitos. Some women approached me and asked me which human rights’ organization I was from. When they found out that I was a journalist, they began telling me their complaints. “Nobody cares about us. Who knows what will happen to us here in the middle of nowhere?”
Music came out from the market. As I approached, kids gathered around me and asked the man behind the counter to turn the volume up. We started dancing and playing with the kids. I felt it was the only thing I could do for them, to make them happy at least for a brief moment. When I went to my car, some of the kids followed me and then ran after my car as I left, sending me kisses and saying goodbye. I had no remedy for their pain.
The Huge Camp of Malagasy
I headed for the next refugee camp, Malagasy, 20 minutes from Inofteya. When I got there, I sat in the car and thought about those kids’ eyes and the pain in their parents’ faces for a while. It seemed as though there was no hope or help for them. They all endured an unimaginable dangerous journey to get here from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan ... and although they were all coming from different backgrounds, they all shared a horrible destiny.
Malagasy camp is much bigger than Inofteya. The camp manager told me that around 7,000 asylum seekers lived there. The line of UN tents seemed to go on forever, each of them full of immigrants without any hope. In front of the entrance, I saw a man holding some grocery bags who I thought might be an Iranian. I asked him and he confirmed he was. He and his family had arrived in Athens from the island of Lesbos 12 days ago, and taken straight to this camp.
When he saw the phone in my hand, he asked me not to record him. I saw worry in his eyes. He said his family of six had been on their journey to get here for the last year and a half.
Refugees from Iran and Afghanistan were gathered around a fire in front of a partially-constructed building in the middle of the camp. Kids were breaking logs for the fire and they were all singing songs together. We sat around the fire and they told me their stories. Very similar to what I have heard from other refugees, they all experienced dangerous journeys, dreaming they would get to Europe with a hope for a better life far away from the war-torn Middle East.
Kids had nothing to entertain themselves with, no toys and not even a piece of paper to draw on. Their world was one of nightly fights and adults’ conversations. Although they still looked very young, they grew older way sooner than they should have. All they talked about were their experiences and interactions with the human traffickers and the violence they experienced firsthand, even the dead bodies they saw along their journeys. But these were all stories they lived with, and they were happy now to be in the camp, where there is not much parental control over them.
In the middle of our chat, a truck full of food arrived and the men around me took charge of the food distribution. Refugees formed a line and after saying their names, they got their share. But there were some people standing back in a corner, just looking at the line without approaching it. I asked them why they didn’t go and get some food. “We are not registered here, so there is no food sent for us. We usually wait and at the end we might find some rice or bread leftovers,” one of them told me in Persian. “We used to slip into the camp’s mosque, but the Imam threw us out last night and said a mosque is not a place for sleep. But what other option do we have? We have no room or tent to sleep in and it’s freezing cold outside. They don’t give us food, no clothes, no nothing. Why does Greece treat us so inhumanely?”
I asked them why they had not been registered? “No camp will register us. Wherever we go they tell us they are full. We search for a camp during the day and spend nights on the edges of one, or just outside. And there’s the Imam who leads people in worship but can’t let us sleep in his mosque. We have no chance.”
One of the men on the top of the truck asked me if I wanted food and I asked him why he was not giving any to these men. He gave me the same reply the people I spoke with had heard so many times. “They are not registered, and food is limited.”
Suddenly, we could hear a brawl breaking out near the campfire. There were about 20 men hitting each other — in front of their children. Some of the refugees came to me and told me to leave because it was dangerous and I might even get hit or caught up in the fight somehow.
A young man held out a large knife, and another was beating people with a wooden bat. I remembered numerous stories from asylum seekers I’d already spoken to about fights that started because someone had stolen something from one of the others. Other times the fights happened because of the pressure and uncertainty of their lives and what destinations they were trying to get to.
It was getting dark and I had to go back. Kids continued to watch the fight; it was a horrible scene. Once again, I had to leave all the pain behind and go back to my car without saying goodbye to anyone. I could feel the pain and desperation from every corner of this camp. I could do nothing else but choke back the tears for the drive back to Athens.
Read other articles in this series:
Meeting with a Human Trafficker in Istanbul
The Love of my Child kept me Alive in the Mountains of Iran and Turkey
A Lost Life: Why was Pedram Safari Left to Freeze to Death?