Greece to Syrian refugees: Don't get too comfortable

Syrian refugees are arriving in Greece, the closest access point to western Europe, by the thousands. But obstacles to getting there – and surviving there – are enormous.

By , Correspondent

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    One-year-old Mayar Abdo from Syria, his face smudged with ash, stands with his family near an open fire in front of their unheated tents in a refugee camp in the town of Harmanli, Bulgaria, Thursday, Nov. 21. Thousands of refugees from the Middle East, Asia and Africa have ended up in the crammed settlements in the Balkans, including Bulgaria, Greece, and Serbia.
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As Syria's refugee crisis mounts, host countries in Europe and the Middle East have grown uneasy over new arrivals. But even by these standards, candid comments by Greece's top police official reveal a particularly hostile welcome for thousands of refugees on Europe's southern border. 

Last week, the Chief of the Greek Police suggested that irregular immigrants' lives should "be made unbearable," according to a leaked audio recording from a meeting of police officials publicized by the Greek magazine, Hot Doc.

“If (authorities) told me I could go to a country… and would be detained for three months and then would be free to steal and rob, to do whatever you want… that is great,” a man identified as the police chief says on the tape. Describing the police response, he continued: "We aimed for increased periods of detention… we increased it to 18 months… for what purpose? We must make their lives unbearable.”

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More than 600,000 Syrians fleeing civil war at home have crossed the border into Turkey. From there, many pay human traffickers hundreds of dollars to bring them to Europe, where they may have family or friends. 

Greece is the easiest access point. So far, more than 17,000 Syrians have crossed, according to Greek police statistics from 2011 until today. It has also become a gateway for other asylum seekers from Africa and Asia. 

But as Greece enters its seventh year of recession, xenophobia is running high, with immigrants being attacked and far-right parties, like Golden Dawn, surging. Syrian refugees say they are often afraid of even walking in the street.

For years, human rights groups have criticized the way Greece has been treating refugees and immigrants, and the leaked recording of the police chief has only added to their disquiet.  

“If accurate, the deeply shocking statements attributed today to the Greek chief of police would expose a willful disregard for the rights and welfare of refugees and migrants seeking shelter and opportunity in the European Union,” says John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s  director for Europe and Central Asia.

Sleeping rough, overcrowded cells

Greece signed the UN Convention on Refugees in 1956, promising to recognize and protect refugees and asylum seekers. Since last summer, Syrian refugees have been automatically granted a 6-month permit that can be renewed. However, conditions for those who make it to Greece can be grim. 

Refugees and irregular immigrants that arrive at the Greek islands are detained for days in overcrowded cells. Asylum seekers are not allowed to work and receive no government assistance. Entire families end up sleeping in parks, even in cold weather. While a few survive on money from wealthier family members living in western Europe or the Gulf, others get help from NGOs. 

Until recently, even applying for asylum in Greece was a challenge. Refugees had to wait outside the police department that took applications, beginning to form lines as early as 2 a.m. Only a handful of cases a day were accepted. To help clear the backlog, a new Asylum Center run by the Ministry of Citizen Protection, opened last summer. 

Last week, Greece was condemned by the European Court of Human Rights for mistreating and illegally deporting a political refugee from Iran and for illegally jailing and mistreating another 13 asylum seekers from various countries that entered from Turkey. The court ordered Greece to pay 8,000 euros ($10,960) to the Iranian deportee and between 5,000 ($6,850) and 10,000 euros ($13,700) to each of the 13 asylum seekers. 

Towed back to Turkey

Even getting to Greece is fraught with hurdles. Sitting in a cold basement without electricity in Athens, Ahmed Assad sits recounts his first attempt to cross by boat from Turkey to Greece. He and about 50 refugees left Bodrum, Turkey, at 3 a.m. one day in mid-October, only to be forced back by the Greek coast guard.

"An hour later the Greek coast guard arrived – boat number 183 – they were wearing black clothes and full-faced masks and pointed guns at us," he recalls. "They took most of our clothes, our money, and the good cellphones – the cheap ones, they threw them in the water – and they threw the medicine for my heart in the water, too." 

"Then they towed our boat to somewhere they told us was Samos," he continues, referring to a Greek island. "But it was Turkey."

NGOs have recorded numerous cases of abuse of asylum seekers. On Nov. 12, a United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) team was informed that about 150 Syrian refugees had crossed the Greece-Turkey land border in the north and were waiting for the police to pick them up and take them to the closest post where they could apply for asylum. One of the refugees called UNHCR from his mobile phone and asked for directions. 

But when the UNHCR team arrived, the refugees had disappeared. They were unable to track down any group that had arrived that day at any of the posts for processing refugees. 

"Despite UNHCR’s repeated contacts with the Greek Police at local, regional and central level, it was not possible to trace the whereabouts of the two groups of Syrians," according to a UNHCR report on the incident. 

Yet thousands of Syrian refugees are still trying to reach Europe via Greece and other border states. 

Only a few days after being turned back in October, Mr. Assad tried the crossing again, joining 46 others, including seven children, on an inflatable boat. As they neared Samos, the Greek coast guard approached. A refugee tore the boat so they would be rescued – but it didn't pan out. The Greeks left. 

"They threw a floodlight on us, but when they saw us fall in the water, they turned and left," Assad recalls. Assad grabbed a four-year-old girl, while another man helped her mother, and the group swam safely ashore. Then the army showed up, pointing guns at them. 

This time Assad's luck held. "They saw the children and told us not to be afraid anymore," he says. 

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