Short of money, Afghan refugees lan­guish in cen­tral Athens, far from ‘promised’ land

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY KAROLINA TAGARIS

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 7-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 yesterday 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 mid­dle­man 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 US-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.

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 of­fi­cer shouted at the crowd. But as they be­gan to board, scores more trick­led into the square from the port of Pi­raeus, af­ter ar­riv­ing ear­lier in the day 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 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 yesterday in protest at their pres­ence.

“We are barred from us­ing the square. This sit­u­a­tion is un­ac­cept­able for a hu­man pop­u­la­tion,” said Mar­ios Michai­lidis, 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.”

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