Friday 28. January 2022
#206 - July-August 2017

Refugees in Greece: Hope in the heart of a morass

Fourteen months ago, an agreement between the EU and Turkey put a stop to the arrival of masses of refugees in Greece and Europe. The refugee situation in Greece is still challenging.

The context in Greece today

The EU-Turkey refugee agreement revealed the weight of political intervention in dealing with the exploitation of the exodus of thousands of refugees. Whilst there are still between 300 and 350 people arriving weekly from Turkey in five ‘hotspots’, the Greek islands of Lesbos, Leros, Chios, Kos and Samos (around 5400 people since January 2017), this represents 98% less than a year ago over the same period.


The haemorrhage seems to have been contained, the remedy effective and the refugee crisis in Greece is no longer a subject for the media, let alone appearing in news headlines. But a heavy silence reigns over the mass of 50,000 refugees stuck in camps, apartments and hotels financed by European funds channelled through the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) or through major NGOs, but also in squats, public parks and makeshift camps.  In Athens, they live off charity, through the generosity of activists and volunteers; they are quite often hostages of a situation not of their choosing.


New arrivals are contained on the islands in detention camps away from the gaze of tourists in order to preserve the local economy. The living conditions here remain very basic: legal and medical assistance is minimal so as to discourage not only new arrivals but also asylum requests, and to even encourage a return to their country of origin. Some refugees, although not many, are sent back to Turkey in accordance with the agreement.


Although accelerated at the end of 2016, and at the beginning of 2017, instances of family reunifications have slowed and are becoming more difficult. Germany has announced that it will not exceed 70 reunifications per month as compared with 600 up to now. 


Resettlement to European countries is open only to certain refugees from Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Yemen, Palestine and Burundi but has been slowed down by lengthy procedures or sometimes curbed by the state of emergency as in France or the context of the French presidential election. Last month, no resettlements to France took place.


Some other countries such as Portugal, which are very open to resettlement, are facing difficulties in receiving refugees through its host institutions. After months of waiting in Greece, confidence is lost and many try to reach Germany at the risk of losing everything and being sent back to Greece.


However, for the majority of refugees, notably Afghans, Pakistanis, Kurds and some from African countries, there is no option other than to stay in Greece and stop dreaming of elsewhere.


After a perilous journey and the euphoria of arriving in Europe, the reality sets in of a country in deep crisis where 60% of young people are unemployed. Refugees, aware of the country’s social, economic and financial difficulties end up by feeling and expressing a mixture of gratitude and compassion beyond their own deadlock. It is a time where they alternate between long periods of patience and impatience.


Each life seems suspended in this morass where virtually nothing moves. One notices more and more depression, serious psychological problems, self-harming and suicide attempts.


Smartphones are like so many lungs that make the heart beat, they are the wifi links with their country of origin, which show the sweetest of images to the most violent images of war, conflict and massacres. They are links to the faces of loved ones, friends and families left behind – they are often distressing – this doesn’t help them to look forward.


Roads still to invent

Against the background of mourning still to be done and trauma to overcome or heal, the everyday life of the refugees and those who join them is punctuated by cries, by silence or by enormous question marks. Why for example does it have to be such a struggle to celebrate the funeral of a Muslim child on Greek soil? Why are there so many obstacles to meet the high cost (more than 3000 euros) of the only Muslim cemetery available 800 kilometres from Athens in the north of the country? What fears, what indifferences, what lack of experiences of encounter do these obstacles reveal?


Are not cemeteries like our memories also borders to open? Times and places where we finally lay down our arms and rest our souls?


At a time of great violence and harmful “amalgams” with regard to Muslims and Islam, let’s avoid fear without being naive! Let every state in Europe open up to all religions, spaces to meet and express the community of humanity.


To manage both this difficult present and to find a future in Europe, it seems urgent to help with the resourcing of humanitarian actors as well as civil society in Europe. We are risking the erosion of action as much as the rise of indifference or of cynicism.


Ethics and the practice of respectful hospitality (philoxenia in Greek) demands breathing space! Experience tells us that in each country this work is all the more fruitful when it is conceived and implemented by a European field team, from Brussels to Athens.


Cécile Deleplanque and Maurice Joyeux sj

JRS Ellada


Translated from the original text in French


The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of COMECE and the Jesuit European Social Centre.

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Note: The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Jesuit European Office and COMECE.