The small colourful festival tents are placed side by side in old derelict warehouses, on the quay and in- as well as outside terminal buildings. In the squalor adults sleep, sit or stand around – waiting – whilst children try to pass time with play or resign to stare into empty space. With 6000+ desperate refugees and migrants – and more arriving every day – Port of Piraeus has turned into the eyesore of Europe.
Smells from cigarettes, garbage, hundreds of unwashed human bodies and babies’ unchanged nappies fill the air in the tightly packed run-down warehouse. From the small washing area in the back of the building a Greek woman shouts angrily at two men trying to enter. In the small tents surrounding the washing area the loud discussion nearby is largely ignored. It is not the first argument of the day and neither will it be the last, as anger, tension and frustration builds up in and around Terminal 1, 2 and 3.
6000+ desperate refugees and migrants have in recent weeks been ferried in from the Greek islands to the East of Piraeus and are now living in dire, dirty and dehumanising conditions in the port. The islands have been told to empty their camps to separate those who arrived prior to the March 20th deadline from people now faced with being deported to Turkey. All of those in the Port of Piraeus area have arrived before the 20th, but without access to news or information they find it hard to figure out what to do upon arrival to the mainland. When the ferries dock no UNHCR staff is at hand to inform them of their rights and possibilities, and so far the port authorities and police have come up with just two options – to stay here or leave for the camps. And of the two evils most choose the port.
Rumours of closed camps or detention facilities run by the army have by now reached most refugees and migrants in Greece. Some have also heard of poor food and living conditions inside the camps from friends and relatives unlucky to have gone there, but others have had to rely on rumours and do not know what to believe anymore. No matter the source of the information, choosing to go to the camps is not something the majority of people in- and outside the terminals do, and neither Moiaad Shaheen, his wife Amira and their three small children aged 4, 2 and 8 months from Homs. The family has been in the warehouse close to Terminal 2 for 15 days, and they are rapidly running out of patience and money.
“It is awful here – filthy and horrible. The children are sick and the food is very, very bad. But I will not risk being locked up. I need information about what to do, but there is no-one here to ask”, complains Moiaad Saheen.
Soon the small green tent the family occupies is surrounded by other Syrians. They have all come to Piraeus from the islands and they all complain about the same lack of information – making it impossible, they say, to decide what to do from here.
“I need to know where the port police will be taking us, but there is no-one here to talk to. I want to apply for asylum here, but when I go to the UNHCR office they tell me to skype them. Skype!!! It cost me a lot of euros to go online from here and I have waited for three hours without getting through. I do not know what to do anymore”, says a frustrated Mazen Al-Ahmad.
Mazen Al-Ahmad is like the Shaheen-family from Homs in Syria. He has been in Piraeus for more than a month now, and as time goes by he gets more and more depressed.
Animals are treated better
The same goes for the other men and women in the camp. Crammed closely together and without decent access to toilets or running water, tempers flare easily. When combined with the uncertainty and growing anxiety felt by the temporary residents, fights erupt easily like they did several times this week, explains Mahmoud from Aleppo in Syria, who does not wish to give his last name.
“I feel so sad. We are all Muslims, and yet we fight. Afghans fight Syrians because of jealousy and people get hurt. We have all escaped war and terror, we should not fight, but the situation is very, very bad here.”
Mahmoud is finding it increasingly frustrating to stay on the quay as no information is given by the UNHCR or Greek authorities. The only word he feels he hears again and again is “wait” and he is sick of it by now, he says.
“When I arrived from Samos, I was told that someone would be here from the UNHCR to meet us and tell us what to do. There was no-one. I had no tent, no blanket, no nothing, but the few people I could ask here just told me to wait. After a few days my friend’s family helped me out with a tent and a blanket. I have been here for almost two weeks now, but every time I ask what to do, I am told to wait – wait for what?”
Without facts rumours flourish quickly amongst the stranded people on the harbour. One says the borders will open again after the 4th April, others that they will all be deported. Mazen Al-Ahmad just sighs. He has all but given up hope as he has no more money for the onwards journey anyway, but longs for peace after five years in bombed-out Homs.
“I think Europeans give their animals more rights than we have here at the moment. I want peace, I ran away from war, why can’t I go and start my new life? If they try and send me back, I will commit suicide. I have nothing to return to.”
On Monday the EU will begin to return “illegal” migrants to Turkey – primarily from Pakistan. According to BBC 500 are expected to be returned under heavy police escort. The Pakistanis face an uncertain future in Turkey, as Pakistan have refused to accept deported citizens from mainland Europe since last year. Whether Pakistan will accept their citizens being returned from Turkey remains to be seen.
Facts about Greece:
Population: 10,8 mio.
Area: 131.957 km2
GDP per inhabitant: $25.600 down from $26.400 (2012)
Form of government: Democracy
Source: CIA Factbook (2016)