Red tape, ty­pos add to Syria refugees’ or­deal

Con­fused by com­mu­ni­ca­tion prob­lems, over­bur­dened of­fi­cials of­ten en­ter wildly in­cor­rect in­for­ma­tion on pa­per­work

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY COSTAS KAN­TOURIS

IDOMENI– Ac­cord­ing to their Greek travel pa­pers, the two young Syr­ian broth­ers are both 110 years old, born to dif­fer­ent par­ents. The of­fi­cials who pro­cessed them upon ar­rival were so over­whelmed by the crush of mi­grants en­ter­ing Greece that they botched the pa­per­work.

Es­ca­lat­ing bu­reau­cratic chaos is mak­ing life even harder for thou­sands of Syr­ian refugees al­ready grap­pling with ex­haus­tion, hunger and un­cer­tainty – as they seek a safe haven from war back home.

Ev­ery day, courts in the north­ern Greek city of Thes­sa­loniki, some 80 kilo­me­ters from the bor­der with For­mer Yu­goslav Re­pub­lic of Mace­do­nia (FYROM), hand down to­ken sus­pended 30-day jail sen­tences to dozens of Syr­i­ans caught with Greek transit pa­pers that are in­valid be­cause of care­less mis­takes by har­ried po­lice clerks. It slows down their jour­ney, as well as Greece’s creak­ing court sys­tem.

“Un­for­tu­nately, refugee re­cep­tion fa­cil­i­ties in Greece are min­i­mal,” said Christos Gko­rt­se­lidis, a lawyer for the two Syr­ian men, aged 19 and 25.

“No­body ex­plains their rights to them, and as a re­sult they are ar­rested and con­victed for no rea­son at all.”

Greece is at the fore­front of Europe’s es­ca­lat­ing refugee cri­sis, and has re­ceived 160,000 peo­ple since Jan­uary, four times the to­tal for all of 2014. Ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions, over 50,000 peo­ple reached the fi­nan­cially bro­ken coun­try last month alone.

Nearly all of the Syr­i­ans risk the short sea-cross­ing from nearby Tur­key, cram­ming into rub­ber dinghies to reach the Greek is­lands, where they are screened, given tem­po­rary travel doc­u­ments and di­rected to ap­ply for ad­di­tional pa­pers. Un­like many other mi­grants, Syr­i­ans who can prove they are from the war-torn coun­try qual­ify for asy­lum and are there­fore granted tem­po­rary Greek transit pa­pers.

With these, they head for Idomeni, some 80 km north­west of Thes­sa­loniki, on the north­ern bor­der with FYROM – the gate­way to a jour­ney north. The plan is to con­tinue by train to Ser­bia, sneak into Hungary and then make their asy­lum ap- pli­ca­tion in wealth­ier Euro­pean Union coun­tries such as Ger­many, the Nether­lands or Swe­den. Only much is lost in trans­la­tion, as over­bur­dened bu­reau­crats en­ter of­ten wildly in­cor­rect in­for­ma­tion sim­ply be­cause they have trou­ble com­mu­ni­cat­ing with the mi­grants – or are too tired to no­tice typ­ing er­rors.

Con­flict­ing in­struc­tions by Greek screen­ing author­i­ties add to the con­fu­sion. On the eastern is­land of Kos, Syr­ian refugees are told they must travel to Athens – and nowhere else – to get the ad­di­tional doc­u­ments. But else­where, there is no ban on avoid­ing the cap­i­tal, which gives them a speed­ier route up north.

Trav­el­ing to Athens puts so much of a strain on the mi­grants – both in terms of time and money – that many ig­nore the or­der and head straight to Thes­sa­loniki, or else cut short their Athens stay with­out re­ceiv­ing the re­quired pa­pers.

Some are then ar­rested in Thes­sa­loniki, con­victed of breach­ing the travel or­der – and or­dered back to Athens. But the jus­tice is ar­bi­trary, as oth­ers are al­lowed to ob­tain the ex­tra doc­u­ments on site, with­out go­ing through a court or­deal.

Gko­rt­se­lidis, the lawyer, said his clients “were con­victed be­cause they had the bad luck to en­ter Greece through Kos, while if they had been on another is­land they would not have gone through this.” The broth­ers, who have since crossed into FYROM, asked not to be named for fear that could fur­ther dam­age their asy­lum bid.

“This is ab­surd,” said Ya­man Al Sayed, a 19-year-old stu­dent from Damascus, who was ar­rested in Thes­sa­loniki for skirt­ing Athens, but re­leased with­out be­ing taken to court. “They could have given me the doc­u­ment any­where in Greece. There are so many peo­ple wait­ing in Athens.”

Al Sayed fol­lowed proper pro­ce­dure by trav­el­ing from Kos to Athens, but there he was told he would have to wait four days for his pa­pers – in­cur­ring ho­tel and liv­ing ex­penses be­yond his means. “So far, I have spent 1,800 eu­ros since I reached Tur­key,” he said. “So I got the train to Thes­sa­loniki, was ar­rested and sent back to Athens.”

Aghast at be­ing told again to wait four days, he caught a char­tered coach to the FYROM bor­der – and was able to cross on the strength of his Syr­ian pass­port alone.

To com­pli­cate things fur­ther, all refugees are ex­pressly for­bid­den from head­ing to the FYROM bor­der, as Greece keeps up the pre­tense that it is not en­cour­ag­ing illegal mi­gra­tion – though ev­ery­one knows that’s where they will go any­way.

A Vima FM ra­dio jour­nal­ist touched a raw nerve on Mon­day, when he asked Al­ter­nate Min­is­ter for Immigration Pol­icy Ta­sia Christodoulopoulou where the refugees go af­ter be­ing screened in Greece: “You find out where they go... I won’t do your re­port­ing for you,” the min­is­ter snapped. “I told some of your col­leagues that they ‘dis­ap­pear,’ be­cause there are some things I can’t say in public.”

At Idome­nis train sta­tion, there is no doubt about the an­swer.

Hun­dreds of mi­grants pitch up at the sta­tion ev­ery day, tak­ing reg­u­lar in­ter­city buses or spe­cially char­tered coaches. Most are left to walk the last 5 km stretch, mov­ing usu­ally at night in groups of 20-30 peo­ple – in­clud­ing women clasp­ing sleep­ing chil­dren or push­ing prams, and men car­ry­ing the fam­ily lug­gage. Armed with new transit pa­pers, they squash into crammed trains that will take them to the next bor­der cross­ing – Ser­bia.

Mohm­mad Ab­dul Aziz, 32, was in one group walk­ing along a high­way to­ward Idomeni with his three chil­dren, aged 5, 7 and 10.

“We are very tired,” he said. “Things are not very easy – but not too bad ei­ther. I know full well that the pa­per I have for­bids us from com­ing [to the FYROM bor­der] but I re­ally have to leave Greece, to con­tinue the jour­ney.”

A Syr­ian mi­grant holds his daugh­ter while rush­ing to shore upon their ar­rival on a dinghy in the vil­lage of Skala Sikaminea on the south­east­ern Greek is­land of Lesvos, Greece, yesterday. Right: Mi­grants wait for per­mis­sion to cross the bor­der from Greece to the For­mer Yu­goslav Re­pub­lic of Mace­do­nia, yesterday.

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