Greece: Confusion forces refugees and migrants off the Greek islands

As always when the ferry to Athens is about to dock at Samos Harbour, hundreds of refugees and migrants wait on the quay with their registrations papers in hand. Normally, they are excited to be leaving the island and start their trek to Northern Europe, but this week some seems rather more hesitant. One of them is 27 year old Mahmood from Syria. He along with others has heard rumours of overcrowded detention centres on the mainland, so whereas the ferry was previously seen as the beginning of their final journey to safety, it now only leads to further uncertainty.

Mahmood is from Aleppo in Syria and is travelling on his own. He left his parents, three brothers and two sisters behind in Aleppo and he knows it will be a long time before he sees them again. Mahmood is an electrical engineer by trade and for days he has been walking up and down the harbour just outside Samos Town. Always with a notebook in his hand and always seemingly talking to himself, he is easily recognisable in his yellow and brown stripy pullover. When walking Mahmood repeats German words and sentences to himself. From YouTube he has neatly noted nouns, verbs and whole sentences down, and by now he is able to present and describe himself and ask simple questions. On the harbour he has had plenty of time to practice, as without internet access, TV, news or anything else to occupy himself with, time passes very slowly. The ferry therefore offers a hope of some movement, but after talking to people who have seen the news, he is starting to doubt whether going to mainland Greece is the right solution for him. He asks around: Has anyone seen the news? What is the situation on the mainland? Will he be able to go to Germany? He has friends there, he says, and he is ready to start work at once.

On Sunday 20th March the deal struck between the EU and Turkey in Brussels two days previously came into force. All refugees and migrants arriving on the Greek islands after midnight on Saturday would either have to apply for asylum in Greece or be returned to Turkey. Greece is well known within the EU for its slow processing of asylum applications and the country has the lowest refugee acceptance rate in Europe. Furthermore, the economic crisis is still ongoing leaving the country with little resources to take on the huge task of housing and feeding the more than 50.000 people now living in camps across Greece – not to mention processing the claims, handling the subsequent appeals and carrying out the repatriations. European leaders did promise to send 2.300 ‘experts’ after the deal was struck, but so far few have turned up on Greek shores and whilst everyone is waiting for what comes next, the islands are trying to clear the already registered people out of the hot-spots, registration and detention centres. Bad weather in the eastern Aegean region has so far kept new arrivals this week at a minimum, but with no clear instructions from Brussels or Athens, many on the ground are left with no answers for the many people such as Mahmood, who don’t know whether to stay or go.

Mahmood arrived on Samos before the deadline the 20th March, so he does not have to claim asylum in Greece. This is why he is still debating whether he can make it to Idomeni in northern Greece and find a way to pass the border to Macedonia from there. Whilst he thinks, the silhouette of the ferry shows on the horizon. He asks again for advice – weighs up his options? In the end he decides it is best for him to give up the dream of Germany and stay on Samos. He knows it is safe here and with his English skills and now some German words, he might be able to start his new life whilst waiting for his asylum application to be processed. He starts gathering his things and asks a nearby official what he should do if he wants to stay, but as the ferry docks he is told that he must leave Samos and apply in Athens. Otherwise he could face deportation to Turkey. Mahmood does not want to go, but he does not dare risk being sent back to Turkey either. Slowly and as the last passenger on the harbour he collects his few belongings and walks on board. He should be able to apply on the island, but no-one knows for sure what the procedures are and how to cope with the many questions being asked, and hence Mahmood is forced to board the ferry and join the growing number of people in Athens and elsewhere, left in limbo by the European leaders and their too hastily signed and enforced deal with Turkey.

Facts about Greece:
Capital: Athens
Population: 10,8 mio.
Area: 131.957 km2
GDP per inhabitant: $25.800 down from $26.400 (2012)
Form of government: Democracy

Source: CIA Factbook (2015)

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