As part of the new deal between the EU and Turkey, the Greek government wants to bring thousands of refugees from its Aegean islands to the mainland. But shelters there are ill-prepared, as Panagiotis Kouparanis reports.
The protest march in Thessaloniki was headed by refugees, followed by small groups, just a handful of people from the left of the political spectrum, initiatives against racism and fascism.
As recently as one year ago the current ruling party, Syriza, also took part in anti-racism demonstrations in several Greek cities. Now, the party itself is the focus of criticism. Leaflets handed out by the demonstration’s organizers on Saturday described the government’s newly constructed refugee camps as “concentration camps,” and called for them to be dismantled.
The refugees themselves had very different demands. In English, they chanted: “Open the border!” They sang songs in Arabic, blaming Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the destruction of cities and the killing of children.
But there was another slogan, one that seemed strange at first: they want to be good representatives of Syria. “This is because misconduct is punished with imprisonment in Syria,” explained Cathrin, an American ethnologist from Columbia University who speaks fluent Arabic and is living in Thessaloniki for a year. This fear constantly haunts the refugees, she said, and they are afraid that such a punishment could happen to them in Greece as well.
The group of some 200 Syrians at the demonstration came from the Diavata refugee camp, set up on a military compound some 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) outside of Thessaloniki. The four buses that brought them here were organized by leftist groups.
At the protest, members of these groups called out anti-NATO slogans in Greek, shouting “War on the imperialist war!” This didn’t seem to interest the refugees, especially since they barely speak the language. And even if they could, it probably wouldn’t have made any difference. They aren’t concerned with world revolution, but with very concrete problems – in particular, the question of whether they can make it to Germany or not.
Mohammed, a 20-year-old student, was at the demonstration asking himself this very question. He and his two brothers fled the eastern Syrian city of Deir el-Zour after it came under siege from the terror group “Islamic State.”
Speaking with DW, Mohammed said that neither he nor most of the other refugees in the Diavata camp had registered themselves in the lists to be used by the European Union in its migrant distribution scheme.
“We have heard that the border will open,” he said. What’s more, he added, none of them knows anyone who has left Greece under the relocation plan.
Life in a warehouse
Delal, a widow with four children who also came from Deir el-Zour, held a similar view. Her entire extended family of 40 fled Syria, and all of them made it to Thessaloniki – from the 68-year-old head of the family to her own 2-year-old disabled daughter.
Since Thursday, their new home has been the 1,000-square-meter (10,764-square-foot) Warehouse 18 in Thessaloniki’s dockyard area. Some 320 refugees have been brought here via the island of Lesbos and the northern Greek port city of Kavala.
When they arrived, union officials at the port spoke of showing solidarity, the port authorities spoke of providing a well-appointed refugee camp and the city council spoke of good coordination of the work by volunteers and non-governmental organizations. In reality, the refugees encountered an empty hall in which they set up the tents they had brought – and non-governmental organizations were nowhere to be found.
Despite this failure, not one refugee has complained. It may be cold in the tents, they said, but they are out of the rain, the toilets on the port premises are kept clean, a Red Cross doctor comes daily – and the Greek army provides them with three meals a day.
Refugees leaving the islands
It is, however, doubtful whether this ordered way of life will continue. As early as Monday, a large number of new refugees could be housed opposite in Warehouse 21, which is much larger, or in another warehouse nearby.
There are reports that the Greek government plans to bring some 8,700 refugees from the islands of Lesbos, Samos, Chios and Kos to the mainland by Sunday evening. All four islands are now home to “hot spots,” in which all those who have come over the Aegean from Turkey are registered according to EU standards.
The aim of this operation, according to the reports, is to fulfill Greek obligations under the EU-Turkey refugee deal, which entered into force on Sunday. This agreement stipulates that all those classified as illegal migrants will be sent back from the hot spot islands to Turkey. The regulation will, however, not affect any of the refugees and migrants who arrived in Greece before Sunday.