Greece gives fed-up mi­grants a way out

Nearly 17,000 peo­ple have turned to a vol­un­tary de­por­ta­tion pro­gram af­ter los­ing hope on Europe


He and his fam­ily had tried for 17 months to make it in Greece, and Ka­mal Mah­mood said he felt “shame” for how badly it had gone.

Back home in Iraq, he’d been a doc­tor; here, he was rec­og­nized only as a mi­grant. He and his wife had be­come des­ti­tute. The fam­ily slept in tents and shel­ters — un­til they ul­ti­mately de­cided to re­turn to the coun­try they’d once paid $12,000 to flee.

“Don’t lose this, okay?” a United Na­tions mi­gra­tion of­fi­cer said at the air­port in Athens, hand­ing Mah­mood a packet of doc­u­ments. “These are your tick­ets up to your ar­rival in Iraq.”

“Got it,” Mah­mood, 44, said qui­etly, tak­ing the tick­ets, along with a tem­po­rary pass­port that listed his wife and four chil­dren and said “one way” on the front.

He and his fam­ily were re­turn­ing as part of a pro­gram, funded by Greece and the Euro­pean Union, that has be­come one of the most sig­nif­i­cant path­ways of re­verse mi­gra­tion from Europe. Through that pro­gram, about 16,900 peo­ple have made the trip back to Africa, Asia or the Mid­dle East over the past three years. The flow is one of the con­se­quences of E.U. coun­tries hav­ing tight­ened bor­ders, im­posed stricter re­quire­ments for le­gal sta­tus or oth­er­wise made them­selves in­hos­pitable.

Many mi­grants now feel com­ing to Europe was a mis­take.

In some parts of the con­ti­nent, peo­ple who feel this way have few op­tions, par­tic­u­larly if they have no money to go home on their own. Even mi­grants re­jected for asy­lum are rarely forcibly de­ported.

But Greece is try­ing to of­fer a way out with what amounts to a de­por­ta­tion sys­tem on a vol­un­tary ba­sis. Some peo­ple opt to go home be­cause they have faced ini­tial re­jec­tions in their bids to qual­ify as refugees. Some have fallen into un­der-the-ta­ble agri­cul­ture jobs with il­le­gally low wages. Oth­ers are sim­ply fed up with be­ing stuck in Greece’s no­to­ri­ous tent camps, which hu­man rights groups say are in­ten­tion­ally squalid and over­crowded.

Those who leave are “peo­ple who have had enough,” said Gian­luca Rocco, chief of the In­ter­na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Mi­gra­tion (IOM) mis­sion in Greece, which op­er­ates the re­turns pro­gram.

Groups that fo­cus on mi­gra­tion say IOM pro­vides an oth­er­wise-lack­ing last re­sort

for mi­grants, who are given travel doc­u­ments, com­mer­cial plane tick­ets and sev­eral hun­dred eu­ros in cash — plus, for some, an­other 1,500 eu­ros they can use for job place­ment or to start busi­nesses back home.

But the de­ci­sion to leave also high­lights Europe’s fail­ure to ac­com­mo­date those who came seek­ing refuge or op­por­tu­nity — a group that in­cludes the Mah­moods, who opted to re­turn to the Iraqi re­gion of Kur­dis­tan even be­fore the con­clu­sion of their asy­lum case.

Ka­mal Mah­mood slept for two hours on his last night in Europe, think­ing about the many rea­sons they’d come to Greece in the first place. Their el­dest son had died of leukemia — a loss Mah­mood blamed partly on Iraq’s health­care sys­tem. In the af­ter­math, Mah­mood’s wife, heart­sick, rarely left their home. Around the same time, Mah­mood was de­moted from man­ager at the hospi­tal where he worked, be­cause of what he de­scribed as a strained re­la­tion­ship with the Kur­dish po­lit­i­cal party that in­flu­enced man­age­ment de­ci­sions.

The fam­ily fig­ured Europe would be a fresh start.

“It was a way to for­get the pain,” Mah­mood said.

What they hadn’t known was that their new home in Greece would be an iso­lated camp, away from easy job ac­cess, where knife fights some­times broke out at night. Once or twice the fam­ily had to re­lo­cate their tent out­side the gates for safety.

The chil­dren could at­tend school, but only in the af­ter­noon, af­ter the Greek kids had left, in for­eign­ers-only class­rooms that grouped to­gether many ages and lan­guages.

Re­turn­ing home, Mah­mood came to be­lieve, was the one way his chil­dren wouldn’t miss out on an­other year of ad­e­quate ed­u­ca­tion — though he had con­cerns about be­ing back in Iraqi Kur­dis­tan, as well.

Many of those in the pipe­line to go home, in­clud­ing the Mah­moods, had ar­rived in Europe il­le­gally and strug­gled with­out doc­u­ments.

She­har­yar Sul­tan, 24, a phar­ma­cist in Pak­istan, found him­self in Greece pick­ing or­anges for 20 eu­ros per day.

Mam­douh Awad, 24, of Morocco, spent the bulk of his time in Greece at a mi­grant camp on the is­land of Les­bos, where he said peo­ple drank al­co­hol dur­ing win­ter nights “just to stay warm.”

The Ma­hour fam­ily from Iran twice tried to move far­ther north through Europe with fake pass­ports; they were stopped both times and then re­jected for asy­lum in Greece. Their 17-year-old daugh­ter, who’d be­come a theater per­former in Athens, has tat­toos and pierc­ings. Their 11/2-year-old son, born in Greece, has a West­ern name, Nel­son. They bri­dled at the idea of re­turn­ing to a more re­stric­tive coun­try where they could face per­se­cu­tion for their athe­ist be­liefs.

“When I go back to Iran, I don’t know if I’ ll be fired or in pri­son,” said Habib Ma­hour, 42, a pony­tailed con­struc­tion worker. “But I know I can’t get pa­pers here. I pre­fer to face what­ever may come. We are very tired here in Greece.”

Among E.U. na­tions, Greece per­haps best il­lus­trates what leaves mi­grants feel­ing stuck. The coun­try is the pur­ported gate­way to Europe for those flee­ing through Turkey; few who ar­rive ac­tu­ally want to stay in Greece. At the height of the con­ti­nent’s mi­gra­tion surge in 2015, asy­lum seek­ers who ar­rived in Greece quickly moved north, cross­ing through Balkan coun­tries to­ward wealth­ier na­tions such as Ger­many and Swe­den. But Greece’s neigh­bors have since clamped down, clos­ing routes that once pro­vided pas­sage­way out of the coun­try. More than 1 mil­lion mi­grants have ar­rived in Greece since 2015. Dur­ing that same pe­riod, 240,000 have ap­plied for asy­lum.

One op­tion for Greece is send­ing mi­grants back to Turkey. A 6 bil­lion euro deal in 2016 be­tween the E.U. and Turkey was sup­posed to open the door for mas­sive re­turns — but it hasn’t worked out. Vul­ner­a­ble mi­grants still have the right to seek asy­lum in Greece, mean­ing they can stay in the coun­try dur­ing a mul­ti­year process. Since the deal was reached, more than 100,000 mi­grants have ar­rived from Turkey to Greece. Fewer than 2,000 have been re­turned.

Greece’s new con­ser­va­tive govern­ment says it in­tends to step up pres­sure on Turkey. Prime Min­is­ter Kyr­i­akos Mit­so­takis says most of the peo­ple now com­ing to Greece have “the pro­file of eco­nomic mi­grants, not refugees” who merit pro­tec­tion.

What­ever their sta­tus, the ar­riv­ing mi­grants lan­guish in what is widely viewed as the most fetid con­di­tions in Europe. Asy­lum seek­ers are housed in tents and ship­ping con­tain­ers on is­land cen­ters, sur­rounded by over­flow­ing garbage and sewage. Ad­vo­cates say Greece has had plenty of time to im­prove the camps but has re­fused to do so, as a way to de­ter peo­ple from mak­ing the trip.

But de­ter­rence hasn’t worked.

Ar­rivals from Turkey are again on the rise, and 31,000 mi­grants are be­ing housed in fa­cil­i­ties de­signed for 6,000, ac­cord­ing to govern­ment data. In Septem­ber at the largest is­land camp — Mo­ria, a for­mer mil­i­tary bar­racks — a fire killed a woman from Afghanista­n and led to ri­ot­ing and demon­stra­tions, with protest signs read­ing, “Mo­ria is hell.”

It is at those camps, and at other, bet­ter-equipped fa­cil­i­ties for mi­grants on the Greek main­land, where the IOM tries to spread the word about the pos­si­bil­ity of go­ing home.

Some peo­ple, based on U.N. guide­lines, are in­el­i­gi­ble for the pro­gram; mi­grants aren’t re­turned to Syria, Pales­tinian ter­ri­to­ries, Ye­men, or other re­gions or coun­tries deemed too dan­ger­ous. In Greece, peo­ple from those parts of the world al­most al­ways win asy­lum any­way. It is the oth­ers — from Afghanista­n, Iraq and Pak­istan — who are like­lier to re­turn home, and they line up ev­ery morn­ing out­side the IOM head­quar­ters in Athens to ap­ply.

While await­ing their travel doc­u­ments, those with­out money are al­lowed to stay at a shel­ter in cen­tral Athens — a fa­cil­ity run by the IOM and con­verted from an aban­doned of­fice build­ing — where the Ma­hours from Iran stayed in room 108, and the Mah­moods from Iraqi Kur­dis­tan stayed in room 106.

“It’s go­ing to be a long day,” Ka­mal Mah­mood told his chil­dren on their last morn­ing in that room. They ar­rived at the Athens air­port with four duf­fel bags, two worn suit­cases, a stroller and a gro­cery bag packed with be­long­ings.

As they waited to check in, Chrakhan Mah­mood, 19, scrolled through Face­book, look­ing at pho­tos of fight­ing in Kur­dish ar­eas of Syria, across the bor­der from Iraq.

“Look,” she said, hold­ing up a photo of dead bod­ies.

As far as Ka­mal Mah­mood was con­cerned, Kurds had al­ways been in limbo. He didn’t think war would come to his part of Iraq. But Syr­ian refugees, he said, would prob­a­bly ar­rive. That was just one of the vari­ables. How would his chil­dren ad­just? Would he get his old job back?

“If I could find some­thing for my chil­dren here, I would stay,” he said. “But I can’t. So maybe go­ing back is bet­ter.”

He held up his phone, like a see­saw, as if weigh­ing Greece on one end, Iraqi Kur­dis­tan on the other.

“It is bad on both sides,” he said, and soon his fam­ily was at the gate and in the air, ar­riv­ing at 2:35 a.m. to restart their lives in Iraqi Kur­dis­tan — a place that, for now, seemed slightly less bad than Greece.


At a refugee camp north of Athens, fam­i­lies seek­ing asy­lum live in makeshift hous­ing. Many mi­grants feel com­ing to Europe was a mis­take.


Some fam­i­lies liv­ing in refugee camps have planted veg­eta­bles like okra, left, to sup­ple­ment their di­ets. Naz­zanin Ma­hour, right, ac­quired her tat­toos in refugee camps in Greece. Af­ter try­ing twice to move far­ther north in Europe, the 17-year-old and her fam­ily de­cided to re­turn to Iran through a vol­un­tary de­por­ta­tion pro­gram.

Muham­mad Zubair, 28, waits for some­one to take him to his de­par­ture gate at the Athens air­port.

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