In Photos: Athens Becomes a Human Holding Pen as Europe's Borders Slam Shut

VICE News visited a people smuggling hub in Athens, where new European border controls mean refugees and migrants are getting trapped in ever greater numbers.
January 22, 2016, 5:50pm
Photo by Nicola Zolin

"You really feel like an animal here," said Bilal, as he sat in Victoria Square, a shady, crime-ridden district of Athens which has become a major people smuggling hub. "Why? We're not stealing. I don't want to break the law here and go to prison — I left Algeria which is a giant prison. Some of my friends managed to get to Europe, why not me?"

A nearby group of Iranians had been unsuccessful entering Macedonia, twice, and were discussing their alternative options. "One smuggler is offering a route walking through the forests of the Balkans to Vienna, for €1,000 ($1,079)," said a man named Ali. "Or we might buy a fake Afghan document from the mafia. Our friends are going to the port of Patras to try and hide on a truck to Italy."

Migrants in Victoria square, discussing how they can attempt to cross the Greek-Macedonian border.

This week has seen a series of measures taken designed to choke the flow of refugees and migrants seeking asylum in Europe. On Wednesday, Austria announced a four-year cap on asylum claims, and said it would admit only 37,500 refugees in 2016. On Thursday, Macedonia announced that only Iraqis, Syrians and Afghans whose registration documents showed their final destination was Austria or Germany would be allowed to cross its border.

On Monday, European Union ministers will discuss whether to further extend emergency border controls. It's all ominous news for Greece, which has a much larger influx of migrants and refugees than other European nations and is now seeing greater and greater numbers being forced to stay, or sent back if they get caught on their onward journey.

With more than 8,500 miles of coastline and a multitude of scattered Aegean islands between it and Turkey, Greece has by far the most difficult to control border in Europe and is typically the first entry point for migrants and refugees trying to enter the continent.

A Yemeni woman waits on the street after disembarking a bus that brought back migrants to Athens after they tried unsuccessfully to cross the border into Macedonia. 

The EU has a rule stating migrants must claim asylum in the first country they arrive in — though it is considering scrapping it. Improved checking of fraudulent documents, and increased apprehensions of asylum seekers who crossed illegally, has seen a cascade of unsuccessful migrants pushed back from the Balkans ultimately to Greece.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, 35,000 refugees have already arrived in Greece this year, representing a 2,100% increase compared to January 2015. There are growing fears that the nation's capital Athens will fast become a warehouse of stranded asylum seekers, adding immense pressure on an already debt-stricken nation.

Despite freezing temperatures, large groups of migrants sleep on the street in Victoria Square awaiting a smuggling opportunity, or in the nearby Pedio Tou park, a hotspot for crack and heroin users. Dan, a volunteer for the Dutch Boat Refugee Foundation, which supports refugees arriving on the Greek islands, hands out socks, soap and deodorant to the destitute in the square.

"Whenever a ferry arrives there is a fresh wave of people here," he said. "We approach the families and offer to take them to a camp, or some kind of accommodation but they say 'we have an appointment.' We know what that means, and we don't want to mess with the smugglers."

Apostolos Papadopoulos, a human geography professor of at Athens' Harokopio University, told VICE News the new border controls would have a huge impact. "Greece will become a repository of migrants," he said. "And it will not be an easy situation to confront. The conservative voices will argue for a hardline stance against them."

At the office of the International Organization for Migration, which coordinates repatriations, a group of Moroccans slouched dejectedly in the hallway. Zouhir, 23, said he tried multiple times to sneak into Macedonia.

"I tried three times but no luck," he said. "I wanted to give up after the first time but my mother encouraged me to keep going. It was impossible for me to find work back home, but now I've spent €2-3,000 ($2-3,230) so it's enough."

Some drawings made by Afghani teenagers in Greece describing the nightmares of their experiences back home.

Inside the head of IOM Greece, Daniel Esdras, told VICE News his organization was trying to reach a target of 1,000 voluntary returns in January. The main takers are Moroccans and Iranians.

"They go back with dignity, as a regular passenger, not in handcuffs and with €400 to help them when they arrive. One of the basic human rights is the right to return home. I believe that now this is the only humanitarian option for these people. They will not get refugee status, unless they have an individual case of persecution, but they have to prove it."

Some graffiti in the stairwell of a squat housing multiple refugees and migrants in Athens.

For refugees in Greece that survive the perilous boat crossing over the Aegean Sea, one legal option of safe passage is available: entry into a relocation scheme. In September 2015, the EU agreed to relocate 160,000 refugees from the frontline countries of Italy and Greece and disperse them across all EU member states. However, the plan is stillborn, with countries slow to act, moving only 331 refugees so far. UK and Denmark are not included, Hungary and Slovakia refuse to accept anyone and overwhelmed Austria and Sweden recently suspended their involvement.

Refugees are housed in hotels across Athens while they await a decision on their relocation application. Participants make a selection of eight countries but ultimately cannot choose.

Aysa, an Iranian toddler, sleeping in the Athens squat.

For Maher Dahood, 40, a dentist from Deir Ezzor, Germany is the only place where he can find peace. After escaping bombardment and slaughter by the Assad regime, the Islamic State and Russian warplanes, he attempted to cross overland from Turkey to Greece only to be rebuffed by police and forced to take the sea crossing.

Mere meters from the Greek island of Chios the boat crashed on the rocks and sunk, the water taking his wife and two children. "I don't understand," Maher told Vice News: We try to enter Europe by land, and we are refused. Then we come by sea, lose our lives, and then we are accepted."

Maher and his last remaining child, three-year old son Mohammed, are waiting for 55 days in Athens with no indication yet of where they are going. Maher wants only to reach his brother's family in Germany to safely settle his son, and to try to cope with his loss. Until then, he takes Valium nightly.

Maher Dahood, who lost his wife and two daughters on a boat just meters away from the Greek coast, caring for his remaining child in the room he is lodging in waiting for relocation.

Aral Kakl, 29, a journalist who fled his homeland after being threatened, is spending his 42nd day awaiting relocation to Finland. He said the long wait was taking its toll for the vulnerable people in the hotel.

"Some people are going crazy here. One man lost his family in Syria and is waiting here a long time. We hear him screaming late at night."

On Friday, a two-day strike by Greek ship workers ended and ferries will once again pull into Athens' Piraeus port, depositing thousands of refugees and migrants from the Greek islands, many of whom will arrive to find a continent quickly closing the door.

Refugees and migrants arriving in Athens on the ferry from the Greek island of Lesbos, greeted by people trying to sell direct bus tickets to Idomeni on the Macedonian border.

All photos by Nicola Zolin.

Follow Nicola Zolin on Twitter: @zolinphoto

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