Who Wouldn't Want to be in Germany as Soon as Possible?

Mohammed is a young, immature and impatient 20-year-old Syrian who was in his second year in business school when the war in his country reached his town. He is now running from war. Before escaping his own country, he was recruited by the government to fight a war that he does not approve, against “rebels” that he does not consider his enemies. He refused to join the government side in the war, so he was captured by the police and tortured for many days. After paying an amount of money he was liberated. Without thinking twice, he then decided to run from his devastated country. He read on the internet and social media that he could go to Greece and then use the “Balkan route” to reach Germany. He learned many things just by using internet, but he also noticed that some things are complicated- “what is that Dublin Regulation?” “And what about those news regarding a Turkey-EU agreement?”

After a long journey, he reaches Athens, where he is shocked by the news that the borders are now closed- what is he going to do now? He heard rumors that some Syrian refugees got apartments in Thessaloniki. He also read about a legal team that could help him there. He decides to go to this city. He takes a train to Thessaloniki and, after arriving, he spends his first night in a cheap hostel. The next morning, he goes to a cafe and using his laptop searches for the legal team. He finds that he has to go to a place called Mikropolis in the city center. Mikropolis is a cultural and social space where a team of lawyers called Ref Law Initiative gives legal advice to refugees.

After reaching Mikropolis, Mohammed meets the team. In the meeting Mohammed learns about his three options: relocation, family reunion, and asylum in Greece. Relocation is a special procedure where Mohammed would have to apply for asylum while staying in Greece (according to the Dublin Regulation, the first EU country where a refugee arrives is the country in charge of the application procedure). It is the most common procedure for refugees. The problem is that refugees cannot choose where they are going. Language skills or professions do not matter for this procedure. Mohammed does not like this fact. He wants to go to Germany because he has heard that he can find a job very quick there and also that in Germany the standard of life is very high. He asks for the second option. The lawyers tell him that if he has family in Europe he can follow the process of family reunion, which would send him to the country he wants. The problem is that he would have to wait between a year and a year and a half. Mohammed has no family in Europe, just friends, so he asks for another alternative. The Reflaw lawyers tell him, as a third option, that he can also apply for asylum in Greece. He does not like this idea. He knows that Greece was heavily hit by the economic crisis. He thinks that he will not find a job quickly enough if he stays in Greece. His mind is still focused on Germany. He is very disappointed with his options.

Mohammed thinks that he should follow the relocation process. He believes that he may get lucky and be sent to Germany. He is ready to begin the process. He asks the Reflaw team about the web-page where he can start the process. They tell him that the application process is not done by internet anymore and that he has to send a regular request and wait. Indeed, the asylum application was through Skype for a period of time, especially for vulnerable cases, but now registration is based on a “pre-registration program” which means that the authorities will collect all the requests (not applications) and then prioritize the vulnerable cases. Mohammed thinks that is not that bad to apply by the regular way, but he is not aware that Greece has around six thousand refugees requesting asylum in this moment, along with a collapsed application system. His chances of access to the system are not very good. It is interesting to notice that some months before he arrived to Greece, the borders were open. So, refugees arriving to Greece would go to another EU country and apply for asylum there. This was something unusual because, according to the Dublin Regulation, those refugees should had been transferred back to the responsible country (Greece), but the present circumstances have led European countries to “forget” international law for some months. Unfortunately for Mohammed, the borders are closed now, so he has to fill his asylum application in a country with a collapsed system.

Finally, Mohammed asks the Reflaw lawyers about the apartments for refugees that he heard of while waiting in the Greek island of Leros. The team has more bad news for him; the apartments do exist, but they are for the vulnerable cases, such us: medical and psychiatric incapacities, one parent family, several kids’ family, unaccompanied minors, etc. Mohammed is very disillusioned now, but he is not the only one. After talking for a couple of hours more with him, the lawyers fear for him. The system has collapsed and this triggered a new agreement between the EU and Turkey, and the agreement states that Turkey would receive back refugees in exchange for economic support and visa free entrance for Turks to Europe. The Reflaw team fears that Mohammed may be returned to Turkey. They saw some cases where some refugees were sent back without even examining their applications. This, of course, is in violation of the Dublin Regulation, which says that nobody should be send back to a country where they can be tortured, executed, or suffer human mistreatment, in other words to a country that is not safe. Turkey cannot be considered safe.

Mohammed is very troubled and has a lot of things to think about. He thanks the Reflaw team and promises to come back in a couple of days. He gets out of Mikropolis and while he walks by the streets of Thessaloniki he thinks about an alternative “process” that he didn’t tell about to the lawyers. His friend Mehmet told him that he should crossed the borders and reach Germany with the help of smugglers. Mehmet told him that he knew a Syrian girl that took that route and was later captured in Germany. She was detained there for a couple of weeks, but she was soon released and she was not returned to Greece. Mohammed likes this idea. What he does not know is that many refugees are deceived by the smugglers and end up robbed, raped or even killed. Mohammed is young, immature and impatient, he does not want to spend a year or more in Thessaloniki, he needs money and a job. Mohammed likes the “smugglers route.” After all, who wouldn’t want to be in Germany as soon as possible?

For the full transcript of the interview, please click here.

Written by: Kenneth Cortez

Brotherhood and Solidarity No More?

Leros, Greece

“Last year we had hospitality... ‘let’s help you, let’s see what make you feel comfortable.’ This time I think will be the opposite.” TK, a restaurant manager that asked to remain anonymous, is one of the many business owners and workers of the Greek islands that rely on tourism to stay financially afloat. The European refugees crisis has challenged what the local people and business owners of the islands believe, and has put to a test their ethics and moral as human beings.

As TK’s quote suggests, it seems that there is a love-hate relationship between the Greeks and refugees who have been co-habitating on islands like Leros,  starting in September 2015. Based on interviews conducted with TK and a volunteer from an NGO working with refugees in Greece, who we will call “EC”, it can be concluded that the influx of refugees into Europe, specifically Greece, has caused social conflicts between local populations and the incoming people to arise.

The interview conducted with EC was not a planned interview, it just happened by chance. On the morning of July 8th, our group of 9 students from the International Field Program (IFP) received information, from the Mayor of Leros, that there was a refugee camp in a town called Lakki. After the meeting with the Mayor, we divided in groups to find the camp. It is in this search that my partner and I found a restaurant called “L” in the Lakki area. Upon stopping at this restaurant to get directions to the camp, we came across two male adults sitting at one of the tables. When the two men overheard us asking about the camp, they immediately requested that we sit and join their conversation, as they were talking about the refugees crisis. More than an interview this was a conversation between different persons involved in the problematic- a greek citizen, an NGO worker, and two students researching the refugees crisis.

The words of the restaurant manager reflect a sentiment that the IFP team found in all the visited islands. This sentiment can be roughly described as brotherhood and solidarity, within the community but especially with the refugees themselves. Although, we see that this sentiment is apparently eroding with the pass of time. Initially it was historic ties that reinforced the relationship between Greeks and Syrians, who make up the majority of refugees in Greece. One of the of the most important events, affirming this connection, was the Turkish-Greek Conflict between the years of 1919 and 1923. As a result of the conflict many Greeks fled to Syria as refugees. Up until today, many Greeks still remember the help they received in the past from Syria and the deep historical ties that unite both nations. Then what is causing the Greek Islanders to be less receptive to the incoming Syrians now?  

Considering the accounts of the business owners and workers that the IFP team interviewed, it seems there are three primary aspects contributing to the decline of this sentiment of “brotherhood and solidarity” that the Greek people wish to convey to the refugees. First, the financial crisis. Second, the negative effect on tourism that the presence of refugees provokes, and lastly the cultural differences between the refugees and “the west.”

The refugees crisis hit Greece at the worst possible moment. As TK mentioned in the interview, it has caused some unexpected results. First, Greeks are not wholly willing to help refugees with open arms anymore. Last year, when refugees first started coming to the islands, people tried to help as much as they could. Yet, the motivation disappeared quickly as both the people and infrastructure of the Greek Islands were not prepared to host so many people running from war and its effects. Another negative outcome is that business owners, smugglers, and even NGO volunteers on the Islands take advantage of the refugees' desperation, charging exaggerated amounts of money for services or products. According to TK, this can be somehow justified because of how the economic crisis and the decrease of tourism income hit Greek businesses. Finally, because of the small size of some of the islands, the local people have more contact with refugees, this situation creates some cultural misunderstandings mainly regarding religion.

The struggle to support refugees is palpable in every word that TK and the other business owners of the Greek islands told to the IFP team. Circumstances are not in favor of refugees nor of the Greeks. Syrians and refugees coming from other non-Western countries, are not going to change their religion or customs to fit into Western standards, and businessmen from the islands are still relying on the inflow of tourists to subsist in a weakened economy. Will brotherhood and solidarity persist? Or is the worst part of human nature going to take the reins from now on?

For the full transcript of the interview, please click here.

Written by: Kenneth Cortez

EKO Station Refugee Settlement

As a business woman, I have gained, but as a person, I have gained more” – Owner of EKO Station

Photo by: Chu Yang

Photo by: Chu Yang

On June 15th we visited EKO gas station, where a refugee settlement became a village. Since March 2016, roughly 1,300 to 1,800 Syrians, Iraqis, and Kurdish men, women, and children sought refuge in the parking lot of the local gas station. Police peacefully evacuated the settlement the day before we arrived. As we stepped off the bus, tents blew in the wind and the smell of human essence mixed with the smell of earth filled the air. The sounds of birds chirping juxtaposed the scenes and smells on the ground.

Police choose EKO, located 25 kilometers (about 15 miles) from the FYROM border, as the ideal location for busloads of refugees to stop in order to control the flow of refugees headed for Idomeni, a makeshift camp directly on the border. According to the owner of EKO, the police did not ask her for permission, nor did they ever speak to her. At first, the police buses only stopped for an hour or two before continuing on to Idomeni. During this time, her business was not affected. However, the stops began lasting longer, eventually up to two days. Tents sprang up in the parking lot of her gas station and quickly turned into a small pseudo-village for refugees, complete with a school, psychological support, a kitchen, and a barber shop. Many choose to stay in EKO instead of moving on to the crowded and chaotic Idomeni because when it rains, the camp becomes extremely muddy and with the tall grass, there were many snakes and other animals. International non-profits provided support to the people in the camp. When MSF (Medecins Sans Frontieres) came in to provide the refugees with food, water, and other supplies, they bought what they could from EKO. According to the guide who brought us to EKO, there were too many NGOs working in the camp that ultimately led to inefficiencies by the time the camp was evacuated.

The owner of the station got to know the people in the settlement. When she and the aid workers learned of the pending evacuation, they pushed police to ensure the evacuation would be peaceful. Our guide told us that since Syrians believe in a strong state, they trusted the police and they thought they would be going somewhere better, one step closer to Germany. The owner of EKO agreed with this perception as well. After the evacuation, she went to visit some at another state-run camp. They told her, had they known where they were going, they would not have left EKO. On Saturday, we visited two camps, the first, which opened a week ago, houses people from EKO Station and the second is filled with Kurdish refugees from Idomeni. The refugees told her the people in the area were acting hostile towards them, she told them that it takes time. She herself was suspicious at first. Now, she says, “I thank god that I had the opportunity to live this situation.”

Written by: Katie Masi
Picture by: Chu Yang