The teenage refugee’s post-pandemic survival guide
You are one of thousands of teenage asylum-seekers in Greece, growing up in the shadow of coronavirus. These are your options.
A fight had broken out in Victoria Square, four guys scuffling and shouting over something or other. One of them removed his belt and began using it as a whip. You stopped talking and watched from the cafe. Any minute now, the police would be here.
In that summer before the virus, there were youngsters wandering around selling SIM cards and mobile-phone credit, and there were refugee families occupying entire benches, parents with young children. They saw the men fighting and they looked away. The police arrived, the fight dissolved, and the journalist sitting in front of you asked another question.
The “you” of this story is a composite figure drawn from the reported testimony of seven young migrants and refugees. All direct quotes are as attributed. The full names of refugees and migrants have been withheld to protect their identity.
Some come by sea and get stuck on the islands. Your group came on foot, walking through the forest until it reached the river at the border. After six tries, you made it across the water. Then you carried on walking, sleeping in the woods to avoid the police until you found the train that brought you to Athens. You did not know the city’s name back then, but you knew where you had to be – right here, in Victoria Square. You were eating your first meal in Athens when, as you had been led to expect, someone came along offering a place to stay.
A year later, Athens has come out of lockdown and you are back where you started – sleeping in the shelter near Victoria Square, talking to the same journalist, watching the police go by. They know you are here now, your name is in their system. And you know their system inside out, you have passed through its police cells, detention centres and hostels.
You have fled hostels in remote Greek towns so that you could sleep on the streets of Athens, where there was still money to be made. And you have had nights on the streets of Athens that left you longing for those very police cells and hostels, anywhere with a mattress and a lock on the door.
Every year for the last five years, tens of thousands of people have passed through Greece without documents, hoping to reach Western Europe. Many have been fleeing war and poverty, others were simply hoping for a better life. As most have travelled onwards, more have continued to arrive, forming a vast and shifting population only partially visible to the Greek authorities. Among them are many teenagers travelling without family members, classified under the law as “unaccompanied minors”. Drifting between the streets, hostels and detention centres, their true number is unknown. You are one of them.
In June this year, a Greek government report said there were around 4,700 unaccompanied minors in the country, the vast majority of them boys over the age of 14. The report by the National Center for Social Solidarity, or EKKA, the government agency responsible for the unaccompanied minors, said around 2,200 of them had been provided housing in the form of temporary or long-term accommodation, while another 1,100 were living in reception centres.
Some 200 unaccompanied minors were in camps and another 200 were in “protective custody” – the term used for keeping minors in detention for their own safety. According to EKKA, a further 1,000 minors were staying in “insecure housing conditions”, which can mean anything from a bunk bed in a squat to a sleeping bag on the streets of Athens or Thessaloniki, the largest cities in Greece.
“A well-ordered state can support a minor whom it knows to be facing abuse. It cannot do anything for a child who is off the radar. This is the darkest issue of them all.”
– Panagiotis Nikas, the former head of the First Reception Service
The true number of unaccompanied minors in Greece is, however, likely to be higher than the official total, as EKKA’s figures are based on those who have been referred to the agency for help with accommodation.
Panagiotis Nikas, the former head of the First Reception Service, the Greek government agency responsible for registering and screening refugees and migrants, argues that the lack of reliable data about the minors is a major impediment to ensuring their safety. “There is not a single person who can tell you exactly how many unaccompanied minors there are in the country today, nor how many that have arrived here within the last two years,” he says. “A well-ordered state can support a minor whom it knows to be facing abuse. It cannot do anything for a child who is off the radar. This is the darkest issue of them all.”
Under EU rules, all asylum seekers should register their claim in the first EU country that they enter. Most of those who enter Greece are, however, hoping to settle in the wealthier economies of western Europe. If they manage to arrive undetected, they have few incentives to register. Staying off-radar leaves them with more options for the onward journey, and for picking up work along the way. It also leaves them more exposed to exploitation on the black market.
Your asylum status is complicated. You have picked oranges on a farm, you have delivered fast food, and you have managed to send some money home. You have not made it to Germany yet but nor have you given up the hope. Your friend Kamran likes to say, “Your money can be taken from you but what you have learnt will always be yours.” This is the story of what you have learnt – your survival guide.
From outside, the shelter looks like any other building in the neighbourhood, which is to say that the walls are covered in political graffiti and the pavements are streaked with urine. You live in Athens’ red-light district. There are brothels on the main street and junkies in the alleyways doing heroin and “sisa”, the cocaine of the poor. Inside the shelter, you have 20 people sleeping in two rooms, all young guys from the home country. The rent is five euros a night or 100 euros for the month. The first time you stayed here, you had no money and the others pitched in to cover your expenses. This time, you are one of those pitching in, covering for the newcomers.
Lockdown was hardest for the newcomers. They had been doing construction work or collecting scrap metal, and they had to go without money for 40, 50 days. As they were completely unregistered, there was no question of any official support for them. In order to keep going, they had to borrow from their roommates.
To go outside during lockdown, you had to send a text message to the police, giving your name, address, the purpose of your visit and your destination – the same rule for everyone in Greece. If the police replied to your message with the word, “MOVE”, you were free to leave. If the police stopped you outside, you had to show them the message on your phone along with your ID or passport.
Those who have already applied for asylum had little to fear. Your friend Abdo texted the police for permission to go out, and where he had to specify the purpose of the visit, he said – for a laugh – that he wanted to meet some girls. He received an automated reply asking him to re-send his request in the correct format. “I sent it as a joke but I got this weird message back,” he says. He has been here for four years and is expecting to be granted asylum soon.
The unregistered guys were nervous about leaving the hostel during the lockdown. With more police everywhere and fewer people on the streets, they felt more exposed, more likely to get stopped. You saw the fear for yourself when you visited the bank near Victoria Square. The queue had spread onto the pavement because everyone was maintaining their distance from one another. As usual, half the bank’s customers were elderly Greeks and the other half seemed to be guys like you, living in nearby shelters. You soon discovered who among them were not registered – they were the ones that ran off when a police car passed by.
Why avoid the police? If you are not on their system, you can keep moving, keep looking for work, earn some money here and there, and maybe find a way to continue your journey. The game is never easy but you can play it by your rules. If you are caught by the police, you follow their rules. You have to file an asylum claim, which can take years to process and could eventually be refused. And you have to stay in detention until the state has found you a place at a hostel.
Your friend Rahman left Athens because he did not want to be registered. He ended up moving to Manolada, three hours’ drive to the west, to work on a fruit farm. He works a seven-hour day, earning 25 euros from which he pays one euro as commission to the foreman or gang-master. He sleeps in a polytunnel shelter like the ones used to grow the crops, for a monthly rent of 50 euros. At the height of the season, there are thousands of migrants and refugees like him, picking strawberries in Manolada that get exported to western Europe and Russia.
Rahman moved there believing he would be safer where “there is no police”. But there are other risks. In 2013, the armed guards at a local farm fired into a crowd of fruit-pickers demanding overdue wages. Dozens of workers were injured, but when the case went to court, all the guards escaped jail. The workers took their case to the European Court of Human Rights and eventually won compensation from the Greek state in 2017.
The ‘revolving door’
What happens if you get stopped in Athens? You will be taken to a police station, registered as an unaccompanied minor, and required to file an asylum claim. The state is now obliged to provide you with housing and education until you turn 18, or your asylum claim is settled. You will be placed in protective custody until suitable accommodation can be found. This could be police cell at first, followed by a detention centre such as Amygdaleza, a former police barracks on the outskirts of Athens. In theory, the state should find you a hostel within four weeks. But as there is a shortage of hostel spaces, you may in fact spend several months waiting in the prison-like conditions of protective custody.
Human rights groups have urged Greece to minimise the amount of time minors spend in protective custody, arguing that any form of prolonged detention can harm their mental health. Greek government officials have said they are increasing hostel capacity and reforming the system.
After some weeks or several months, however long it takes to find a hostel vacancy, you will be moved to your new home. Most of the hostels are in the provinces, in small towns or the countryside.
You have heard the other guys refer to these places as “the Sahara” and you can see why – you are surrounded by miles and miles of nothing. Now you have a choice: either stay in the hostel or make your way to a big city, Athens or Thessaloniki, where you can easily find work. You choose the big city. After all, you did not come so far, take so many risks, to sit idle while the system decides your fate. Back in Athens, you are introduced to Ibrahim, who has been making a living selling cigarettes and hashish around Exarcheia square since he was 15. You start selling cigarettes for him.
Sofia Papadopoulou, a child protection specialist at the Association for the Social Support of Youth, ARSIS, an NGO helping unaccompanied minors in Thessaloniki, believes “many of the children on the streets have been forced to take part in illegal activity”.
Your friend, Abdo, has another theory. “Some guys just prefer the streets,” he says. “It has to do with their journey here. They have learnt to live on the streets, they even take pride in it.” You are not one of those guys. You realise you have had enough of the streets when a passerby strikes you on the head one morning. You want a roof over your head and a job where you will not get attacked. You try the shelters around Victoria Square but all of them are full. You sleep on a bench in the square until the police pick you up and bring you to the station. They find your name in the system, matching it to a report filed by the hostel after you went missing. Within hours, you are back at Amygdaleza, waiting for a place to become available at a hostel. The guards recognise you.
“We usually already know most of the minors coming here,” says the commander of the Amygdaleza detention centre, Asimakis Solomos. “We even say: Here again?” Solomos estimates that over half the 600 minors admitted to Amygdaleza every month are newcomers. The rest are all familiar faces, he says, who treat the hostels and detention centres as a “revolving door”.
I don’t care, put me in detention, I can’t take it anymore.
Some minors cannot wait for the police to pick them up. They contact one of the NGOs that deals with migrants and refugees and are willingly escorted to the police station, accompanied by a social worker and a lawyer. Aggeliki Theodoropoulou, a lawyer for the Greek Council of Refugees, an NGO, says life on the streets can leave the minors exhausted or – if they have been beaten up – terrified. “They say: I don’t care, put me in detention, I can’t take it anymore.”
Back at the shelter near Victoria Square, the newcomers are checking their phones for news of their friends. It was even worse during the lockdown – they were on their phones all day. As it was also Ramadan at the time, everyone seemed to be doing the same things – taking naps, exercising, watching films, and checking on each other via Facebook.
Two of the newcomers’ friends were caught as soon as they entered Greece. They went straight to the detention centre, a place called Fylakio near the Turkish border, where they had to file an asylum claim. As they were both under 18, they went into “protective custody”. Although they were only meant to stay at Fylakio for three weeks, the shortage of hostel beds means these guys have been stuck there for seven months. When one of them posts a load of happy emojis on Facebook, the newcomers ask if he has good news. No, comes the answer, the emojis were meant for the family back home, to reassure them that everything was okay.
On your phone, there is an update from Rahman in Manolada. Alone among your friends, he kept working through lockdown – the strawberry harvest does not wait for the virus. It turns out that the government had eased the restrictions on workers in agricultural areas. If the police stopped Rahman, he would not have had to show any text messages or ID. All he needed was a letter from his employers, confirming his status. Rahman may never win asylum in Europe. If he stays unregistered, he will never even apply for it. But thanks to the pandemic, he will always have a piece of paper that recognises he was working on European soil for a few weeks this year.
First published on 1 October 2020 on Balkaninsight.com.
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