Risk­ing life and limb for a way out of Greece

Pa­tra port has be­come a ma­jor gate­way for un­doc­u­mented mi­grants and refugees look­ing to get deeper into the Euro­pean Union

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY YIANNIS PAPADOPOULOS

He had spent two whole days in a drawn-out group es­cape at­tempt at Pa­tra port: dash­ing across the street, scram­bling up the first row of fenc­ing and then hun­ker­ing down out of sight. Some car­ried planks they hoped to wedge into a truck’s un­der­car­riage so it could carry them away onto a fer­ry­boat. Oth­ers tried to cling onto the back of the truck cabs with bare hands. But ev­ery time they heard a pa­trol car’s siren they would scat­ter, only to re­group and try again later.

Waseem Shahid was not ready to take plunge; he was still learn­ing from oth­ers with more ex­pe­ri­ence. “I’m ob­serv­ing the tech­nique and I’ll make my at­tempt soon,” he said.

The 32-year-old Pak­istani man had crossed into Greece from the Evros bor­der with Turkey about three months ear­lier. He tried to reach Ser­bia through the north, but found Greece’s bor­ders tightly shut. He had been in the western port city of Pa­tra for just a few days, try­ing his luck.

“I was told that it would take three or four at­tempts to get onto a boat trav­el­ing to Italy,” he said. “It doesn’t seem that easy. I’m con­fused.”

Over the past few months, an in­creas­ing number of mi­grants and refugees trapped in Greece have been try­ing to con­tinue their jour­ney to Western Europe via Pa­tra.

Last Septem­ber, au­thor­i­ties ar­rested 40 peo­ple with fake travel doc­u­ments or hid­ing in trucks; in March, ar­rests came to 246.

Fac­tory squats

Pa­tra has al­ways been an at­trac­tive es­cape gate­way. In 2012, some 400 mi­grants from Asia and North Africa had set up camp, a maze of tents and shel­ters, in the ru­ins of the Peiraik­iPa­traiki tex­tile fac­tory across the street from Pa­tras’s new port. The fa­cil­ity is now guarded, but the camp seems to have moved to the nearby ru­ins of an­other fac­tory.

AVEX was founded in 1922 and orig- in­ally made boxes to trans­port Corinth’s raisins un­til it later turned to lum­ber. The com­pany’s clo­sure five years ago was the most re­cent in the his­tory of the area’s dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to a study by the Tech­ni­cal Cham­ber of Western Greece, 20 in­dus­trial units closed down in Pa­tra in the 1976-96 pe­riod.

Walk­ing around the for­mer fac­tory’s vast premises, Kathimerini came across mi­grants and refugees from Afghanistan, Pak­istan and Iran who have set up tents in the old of­fices, the boiler room and the stor­age ar­eas.

Some had been stay­ing at of­fi­cial mi­grant cen­ters in Athens and Thes­sa­loniki or at the makeshift camp in Elliniko in the Greek cap­i­tal be­fore end­ing up here. Oth­ers were on the is­lands, like a young Afghan who left the Mo­ria camp on the Aegean is­land of Lesvos as soon as he turned 18 in March and headed to the Greek main- land. A few had rel­a­tives in other Euro­pean coun­tries but were not el­i­gi­ble for the fam­ily re­union pro­gram be­cause of their na­tion­al­ity or were ex­pe­ri­enc­ing long de­lays in the process. Des­per­ate, they opted to try to leave Greece on a truck. The fa­cil­ity is also home to many un­ac­com­pa­nied young­sters aged 15 to 16.

Early days

Alekos Bourtzi­las started work­ing in Pa­tra back when he was their age, many decades ago, first at var­i­ous ma­chine shops around town and then at AVEX, spend­ing 30-odd years there, un­til it closed. “I am fright­ened by the fact that we can­not deal with all this un­cer­tainty, that we 50-year-olds are con­sid­ered old horses. There are no jobs. There is no re­spect,” said the for­mer ma­chin­ist, whose ex-col­leagues also face the specter of un­em­ploy­ment.

He re­mem­bered young mi­grants sneak­ing onto the premises at night back in 2011, dur­ing a pe­riod when the AVEX work­ers had gone on strike be­cause they weren’t get­ting paid. Staff helped them with cloth­ing and food. Some peo­ple in Pa­tra con­tinue to help the mi­grants.

“Th­ese are peo­ple of war, chased out, fright­ened,” said Bourtzi­las as we walked the perime­ter of the AVEX fac­tory.

Es­cape at­tempts are a daily phe­nom­e­non, tak­ing place when fer­ry­boats are loaded be­tween 2 and 6 p.m., de­spite tight se­cu­rity. Dur­ing one truck in­spec­tion we wit­nessed, the port author­ity of­fi­cer spot­ted some­one hid­ing in the un­der­car­riage. He stooped over and shone his flash­light to get a bet­ter look. A plas­tic water bot­tle was the first thing to drop onto the as­phalt. Then we saw a leg. Even though he can’t have been hid­ing for long, the stow­away’s clothes and face were black­ened by ex­haust fumes. His pa­pers said he was from Afghanistan and just 15 years old.

‘A huge ef­fort’

In the for­mer in­dus­trial zone of Akti Dy­maion at Pa­tra port there are cur­rently re­cently ar­rived mi­grants and oth­ers who have been there for months, even years. The old-timers in­clude so-called agents, mi­grants who claim to have al­ready made the cross­ing suc­cess­fully and who – for a fee – show oth­ers how to force open truck doors, where to hide and of­fer other tips.

Wit­nesses told us that they ask for their fee up­front and don’t do re­funds if the at­tempt fails. They prom­ise to keep help­ing their “clients” un­til they suc­ceed or sim­ply give up.

Most of the mi­grants at the port try to go it alone, how­ever, dodg­ing the con­stant po­lice and port author­ity squad cars pa­trolling the port’s perime­ter.

“It is a huge ef­fort on the part of our ser­vice to en­sure that the port op­er­ates smoothly but also the safety of the mi­grants and oth­ers in the port area,” said Pa­tra port chief Dim­itris Kyr­i­akopou­los.

The CEO of the Pa­tra Port Author­ity, Nikos Kon­toes, ad­mit­ted that the task has be­come harder in re­cent years but added that se­cu­rity mea­sures are work­ing and the number of suc­cess­ful cross­ings is much lower than at­tempts.

In 2010, for ex­am­ple, Ital­ian au­thor­i­ties re­turned 1,700 un­doc­u­mented mi­grants to Pa­tra. That number dropped to 350 in 2012 and is now at around 200 a year.

This has done noth­ing to de­ter mi­grants from try­ing.

The plan now is to build a sec­ond fence around the ex­ist­ing one. It will be 3 me­ters high and made of a trans­par­ent ma­te­rial so the port doesn’t re­sem­ble a mil­i­tary fa­cil­ity. It will have sur­veil­lance cam­eras and con­stant pa­trols in the 5-me­ter cor­ri­dor be­tween the two fences. The port will also be equipped with mag­netic gates and xray ma­chines to check cargo and lug­gage.

The to­tal bud­get for th­ese im­prove­ment is 1.4 mil­lion eu­ros.

X-ray in­spec­tions

Right now, only a cer­tain number of trucks are x-rayed and this from a mo­bile ma­chine on a van. Im­ages from the scan­ner from older in­spec­tions that were given to Kathimerini re­veal peo­ple hid­den in the most un­be­liev­able spots, in spa­ces so tight it would surely be hard to breathe.

Watch­ing one botched at­tempt af­ter an­other, Shahid lost in­ter­est and de­cided that Pa­tra was not the way for him. Hefty and over 1.80 me­ters tall, he could not imag­ine cling­ing onto a truck. Yet even if he had made it, he would prob­a­bly be dis­cov­ered. He learned that try­ing to es­cape can be a vi­cious cy­cle.

X-ray im­ages made public by au­thor­i­ties il­lus­trate the risks mi­grants take to cross over to Italy from Pa­tra.

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