Afghan refugees languish in Athens far from 'promised land'

Reuters News
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Posted: Oct 01, 2015 11:25 AM

By Karolina Tagaris

ATHENS (Reuters) - Afghan refugee Khodadad spends his days huddled with his family in an Athens square with little food, no money and dwindling hopes of ever reaching their desired destination: Germany.

They are among thousands of Afghans languishing in the Greek capital without passports and with barely any cash after being ferried to the mainland from the Aegean islands on which they land every day from Turkey.

In the cruel, unofficial pecking order among hundreds of thousands of migrants who have flooded into Europe this year, Afghans are beneath the underdogs.

Unlike often richer and better educated Syrians, they have traveled further and can't afford the ride across the Balkans to the "promised land" of northern Europe.

"We have no money. We wait," Khodadad shrugged as he cradled his seven-month-old baby.

Victoria Square, in a poor, run-down part of Athens, has been transformed into a makeshift camp in recent weeks with thousands of mainly Afghan refugees sleeping rough in the open, braving the occasional downpour as autumn sets in.

Trying to ease the strain on local authorities, the government moved several hundred refugees on Thursday from the square to a sports center north of Athens. Earlier this week, it transferred a few hundred to the former Olympic hockey stadium, only to see Victoria Square fill up again days later.

Cafes are full of young Afghan men charging their mobile phones while families try to create some semblance of a normal life in their tents. Sales staff from big brand mobile phone companies sell SIM cards in the middle of the square.

Women in bright-colored headscarves breastfeed their babies while young children take turns on a tiny rocking horse. Others play cards on worn-out mattresses laid among rubbish beneath a German-made statue of Theseus, a mythical king of Athens.

Most have nothing to do but wait.

Afghans spend longer than Syrians in each country on the migrant trail to earn or collect enough money to travel north. It takes longer to process their asylum applications because authorities give priority to Syrians, designated as refugees since they are fleeing a civil war.

"It's difficult, time doesn't pass. We are hungry. We eat only bread," said Khodadad, who declined to give his last name because he fears for the safety of relatives at home.

He said he paid 2,500 euros ($2,800) to a shadowy middle-man for his family's 20-day journey from the northern city of Kunduz to Greece via Iran and Turkey in search of a better life in Europe after his sister was killed by the Taliban. His wife, baby and two more children aged 6 and 7 traveled with him.

"There is war in Afghanistan. Many people died. We were scared to sleep at night," he said.

The Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan with a harsh interpretation of Islamic law for five years, have been fighting to re-establish their Islamist rule after being toppled by a U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

Nevertheless, European authorities are reluctant to treat Afghans generally as refugees, partly because they have the possibility of shelter and work in neighboring Iran.

Taliban fighters briefly captured once quiet Kunduz this week before being dislodged by U.S.-backed army units, according to Afghan authorities. Swathes of the province have repeatedly come under siege this year as the insurgency gains ground.

NO MIRACLES

A record 420,000 refugees and migrants have fled war, persecution and poverty on rickety boats across the Mediterranean to Europe this year, 309,000 via Greece, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Few, if any, of those who make the dangerous crossing in inflatable dinghies from Turkey to the Greek islands want to stay in Greece, a country deep in economic crisis and ill equipped to take care of them.

In Victoria Square, half a dozen buses chartered by the government were waiting to take the refugees to a sports center north of Athens for temporary shelter.

"Go to the bus! Get up and go!" a police office shouted at the crowd. But as they began to board, scores more trickled into the square from the port of Piraeus, after arriving earlier on Thursday on a ship from the islands carrying 2,500 people.

"Which way to Germany?" one man asked when he reached the square with a group of friends.

Local Athens residents are divided, with some bringing bags of food and clothes, while others demand that the migrants be relocated. Shops around the square closed for two hours on Thursday in protest at their presence.

"We are barred from using the square. This situation is unacceptable for a human population," said Marios Mihailidis, a teacher at a local elementary school. "We're not against them, we're with them but we want them to be taken to a humane place."

Greece's new migration minister, Yannis Mouzalas, said the government was working around the clock to find spaces to accommodate the refugees and alleviate neighborhoods.

"I appeal to residents to be patient and to my own services to be persistent, and we will make it," he told reporters from the square. "There will be no miracles, but an improvement."

(Editing by Paul Taylor and Giles Elgood)