They're protesting their precarious position in the country—they can't legally live or work in Greece, but they can't leave either.
All photos by the author
On Monday, November 24, more than 200 Syrian refugees began staging a hunger strike in front of the Greek parliament. It evolved out of a six-day-long sit-in the refugees embarked on to demand the right to live and work in Greece or leave the country legally. Activists have told me that nine people have been hospitalized, six people have collapsed, and others are starting to show symptoms of hypothermia.
"We will stay. We will not eat. We will not drink. We will not do anything until the Greek government or the European Union responds," says Jalel, a Syrian who has been in Greece for three months. Since the protest began last week, temperatures have dropped and the winds blowing through Syntagma Square have gone from bracing to freezing. On the sixth day, the group decided to commence a hunger strike even as one woman was taken to the hospital for symptoms of hypothermia.
The number of Syrian refugees entering Europe through Greece continues to grow, according to the Wall Street Journal. Police statistics show that some 29,000 refugees from Syria have entered Greece in the first ten months of this year, versus about 8,500 for the whole of 2013. According to Eurostat, 165,000 Syrians have sought refuge in Europe since the start of the war nearly four years ago. In the earlier days of the Syrian civil war, those seeking refuge in Europe would mostly come in through the land border Greece shares with Turkey.
Since then, Greece, along with Frontex, the EU's border-protection agency, has beefed up security and built a fence along its 128-mile border with Turkey. Now many migrants, mostly Syrian refugees, travel instead to the eastern Aegean Islands, some of which are only a few miles from the Turkish shore. Smuggling rings put desperate migrants on inflatable dinghies and send them across to Greece. The added danger of crossing the border this way has resulted in several deaths and disappearances, most recently late last week when four people—including a little girl—went missing off the island of Lesbos.
According to refugees, part of the problem is the lack of a legal way to leave Greece and go elsewhere in Europe. One told me he tried to leave Greece via FYR Macedonia, and said he was not only detained for 30 days but was also beaten by police, exacerbating gunshot wounds from when he was shot back in Syria. Others who have been caught in Macedonia have told me similar stories of prolonged detention and abuse by authorities there.
Many of the Syrian refugees who have made it to Europe are highly educated former members of the middle class who sold most of their possessions to pay for their escape. They say they hope to use their skills to find work when they get to a country that has job opportunities for them. Obada is a doctor from the ISIS-controlled city of Raqqa. He and his family escaped to Turkey and he hopes to make it to either Italy or the UK where he has family. "Many of us here are doctors, pharmacists, engineers, and we need help from the European Union to resettle in a place where there's opportunities for us," he says.
Sami, a 20-year-old from Damascus, left Syria with his mother, who is now in Switzerland. He has tried five times so far to travel to Switzerland and reunite with her only to be turned back at the airport. He has made some friends in Greece and says he likes Athens very much, but understands why it is not possible to stay here. "Greece cannot help us. We know this, but this is why we need to be allowed to move on from here," he says.
Moyad, from Homs, has been in Greece for six months and has also tried numerous times to leave. "They don't want us here, but at the same time they are blocking us from going somewhere else," he says.
Some of the refugees have more urgent situations. Khaleel, a 17-year-old who recently lost his hair, wants to seek medical care for cancer after being told by a doctor back home that he has symptoms but was unable to get tested there. He will attempt for the tenth time in three months to leave Greece this week to see a doctor in Paris.
Despite repeated threats of eviction, the Greek police have refrained from forcing the Syrian refugees to leave Syntagma Square. Over the last week, many individual Greeks and some community groups have left clothes, blankets, and food donations. They say that until they are able to escape the bureaucratic trap they are in, they plan to continue sitting on cardboard boxes and resting in sleeping bags on the marble floor of Syntagma Square, because it's all many of them have left.
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(A previous version of this piece listed the start date of the hunger strike as November 25. It was actually November 24.)