Anti-racist activist Maz Saleem reports from Piraeus Port, Athens, the frontline of the current refugee crisis
I arrived with Eloise at the Piraeus Port just 20 minutes from Athens Central on the metro on what is quite a hot day: 24 degrees celsius and extremely humid. As we entered the E3 area of the port, it was clear that more movement of the refugees was imminent. Two coaches waited outside the ferry terminal. This is currently where around 700 refugees wait, both inside and in the surrounding area of the terminal. Mainly Syrian, they were hot and exhausted in the midday sun. Many were sleeping or resting, whilst lots of carefree children were happy to run around, play, and enjoying the sunshine.
Today the refugees in the E3 terminal area had been told by volunteers they were to evacuate and leave on coaches to Katerini and Alexandria. Early reports indicate that this was communicated in a polite and friendly manner and they had "not been forced." But one Greek volunteer stated, "the refugees are very disheartened and don't believe anyone".
There are three areas for refugees in the port which holds up to thousands of refugees from war torn Syria and Afghanistan: E1, E2, and E3. The volunteer we spoke to said they are "moving them on as the port police have problems with children near the water as it is very dangerous, especially with the hundreds of unescorted minors in the port".
Hisham, a 16-year-old Palestinian/Syrian refugee, who has been in Greece for the last 27 days, had only just arrived at the Piraeus port. He told us how his parents had been missing for the last three or four years in Syria. He was desperate to reunite with his two younger sisters currently staying with his mother's sister back in Syria. He hopes to reach Germany and secure adoption for himself and his young siblings.
“George”, a 24-year-old Syrian refugee, had been working at a Real Estate broker in Turkey for around six months. Unfortunately, many small businesses are struggling in Turkey and often refugees will be the first to lose their jobs. Using savings from this job he was able to secure passage to Mytilini via a smuggler on a tiny, overcrowded life raft. Only designed for 30-35 passengers, the smuggler had rammed over 50 people on board. Through stormy seas with waves reaching over a metre and a half, the boat quickly ran in to trouble, and “George” was extremely lucky to escape alive.
Next, we met Hamayoon, a 21-year-old well-spoken Afghan refugee, a joy to speak to, full of hopes and dreams and positivity, considering the journey he had been through. Hamayoon, who currently has a legal visa from his time in Iran, left Afghanistan due to security fears and wanting to seek a better life and education. In an attempt to leave Afghanistan, he spent thousands paying smugglers for a safe passage to Lesvos and spoke at length about his traumatic journey.
On the packed boat he was sure he was going to die getting to Europe. He has been in Pireaus now for 15 days and is hoping to get to Germany to meet members of his family. His simple dream? To seek an education and a better life for his family.
Sotiris Alexipoulos, of ‘Refugees Welcome to Pireaus’, explained that there are around 5,000 refugees (with over half that number being young children) in the port of Piraeus. Today they cleared the E3 area as it was over-exposed to traffic and very dangerous for children. According to Sotiris, current estimates put the number of camps in mainland Greece at 34. He added, "The refugees that arrive after the 20 March come under EU agreement; those that arrived before have the old status and they cannot be sent back to Turkey."
The old port waiting rooms have been converted to an open plan shelter for the refugees but with no showering facilities and unsanitary conditions, the stench of urine and sewage hangs in the warm air. Sotiris was quick to explain that the sewage system cannot take the huge amounts of water needed to cope with the thousands of tents scattered throughout the port. These tents are generally quite small, but able to squeeze up to 6 people, including young children and babies.
Rammed into tents in hot and humid conditions with no facilities to bathe is no way to live, especially with children. Most Greeks seem disgusted by the treatment of the refugees by their government and the rest of the EU. But with their own current economic crisis still ravaging the country, what more can they do?
As we begrudgingly leave the camp around 10pm, our hearts break as we walk past babies crying themselves to sleep, young children walking around aimlessly looking lost and the looks of despair and exhaustion on parents' faces.
How is it that the EU has no money to provide safe passage and shelter when at the drop of a hat they are able to deport them back to Turkey and continue to bomb the likes of Syria, Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq? Refugees do not just appear. War is the main driver for the huge flows arriving at our shores, fleeing death, destruction and persecution. The EU-Turkey deal makes a mockery of human rights.
In all honesty, in comparison with the French authorities in Calais, the majority of the Greek people (the left movement, mayors, councillors, etc.) seem a lot more compassionate and sympathetic to the plight of the refugees. Unfortunately, with the current economic crisis, many want to help but lack the finances and resources to do so. It seems contradictory that there has been no money to provide safe passage since the start of the refugee crisis. But as soon as the opportunity to deport refugees arises, money is suddenly found throughout the EU.
We need to open the borders and let our brothers and sisters in. Seeking a better life is not a crime.
Thanks to Eloise Hadenham.
Maz Saleem is the daughter of 82-year-old Mohammed Saleem, who was murdered in Birmingham just yards from his house by Ukrainian far-right terrorist Pavlo Lapshyn. Maz is an active campaigner against racism and Islamophobia in Britain.