Ritsona is the largest refugee camp on Greece’s mainland. Excluded from the region’s social and economic network long before the pandemic, the camp gradually acquired its own life. Today, with new surveillance technologies being installed at the camp, there are growing fears that the camp community will become completely isolated.
Behind an office in the basement of a makeshift wooden structure, sits a 14-year-old boy dressed in white, with short hair and the characteristics of his Hazara ethnic group, native to Afghanistan. In a notebook, he keeps score for those who are playing pool.
Nearby, men sit in rudimentary stands, looking on. Some people wait patiently for their turn to play, sipping on energy drinks. Most erupt in applause or playful teasing after the strike of the pool stick.
The basement pool halls at Ritsona refugee camp, currently the largest − in capacity − refugee camp on the mainland, are one of the few places where young asylum seekers can “kill time”.
Here, time moves slowly and within the limited margins of humanitarian aid, needs are not always met. Even when the small business owners are not able to earn a substantial income in the makeshift marketplace which has developed over the years, the market meets a more important need − finding a way out of the idleness of waiting, which often lasts for more than a year, which people at the camp experience, their lives on hold.
An isolated “city” – long before the wall was built
The Ritsona Reception Facility, about 80 kilometers from Athens, is an entire city. It consists of prefabricated dwellings (with a total of 260 rooms) and 195 containers, located in a clearing off the Thebes-Halkida national road.
According to the Hellenic National Defence General Staff’s latest weekly press release, as of November 5, 2021, there are 2,409 asylum seekers living at the Ritsona camp, making the facility the third most populous in Greece after the Mavrovoúni camp on Lesvos (2,907) and the Malakása camp on the mainland (2,432).
Since May 2021, a three-meter-high concrete wall surrounds the Ritsona camp. However, the facility was isolated long before the wall was built. Since 2016 when the camp was created, asylum seekers have been living 10 kilometers away from the nearest city, Halkida, and five kilometers from Vathi Avlidas − cut off from the social and economic life of the region where they reside.
In isolation long before the pandemic, they inevitably had to create their own “city”. An informal market with small shops − greengrocer’s, even nightclubs − has developed over time, according to the needs of the population.
A key point for its growth came in January 2020, when the facility’s population rose significantly. According to the population count on December 27, 2019, the number of residents, 832, increased to 1,564 by January 3, 2020.
As the camp grew, the residents began to develop economic activities and organize their lives in a way that served their social needs.
Arab and Afghan taxis
According to the latest figures from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which manages the facility, about one in three people in Ritsona are from Afghanistan (33.60%) and Syria (32.42%).
The rest are from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (16.99%), Iraq (5.70%) and Somalia (2.99%), while less than 1% represents 25 additional nationalities.
Within the camp, each community has its own neighborhood, as well as its own shops in the marketplace, where everything − that residents would normally have to travel miles to buy − is available. There are also places of worship: there’s an Arab, an Afghan, and a common mosque, and a container where gospels sung by Africans can be heard on Sundays.
Respectively, there are Arab and Afghan taxis. As the facility is cut off from the nearest communities, and there are no regular bus routes that connect Ritsona to the outside world, these vehicles are by far the only solution for people who want to travel outside the facility.
A ride to Athens is €10, or €15 round-trip, per person. The ride to Halkida, although much shorter than Athens, costs €20. This is because when going to Athens, usually the ride is shared by more passengers.
The taxis also serve the needs of the camp residents, who are often waiting for months for their asylum interview or for a reply from their application, and in the meantime, work in the nearby fields.
Many are employed in the cultivation of onions in Thebes, about 25 minutes away from the camp. The daily wage is €21. After they pay a taxi fare of €5, at the end of the day there are €16 left.
Bicycle shops, greengrocer’s, mini markets
Asylum seekers may find it difficult to reach neighboring communities, but this does not apply to the products from the nearby towns making their way to Ritsona.
Mini markets, food stalls, greengrocer’s − market of Ritsona has it all. Next to a barbershop, a man from Afghanistan runs a small shop where residents can enjoy PlayStation games. For €1 an hour, one can reserve a seat in the armchairs – worn out by use and time − in front of one of the big screens and play.
At a bar, complete with flashing disco lights, one can enjoy hookah (waterpipes), hot tea, cold soda, and loud music. It’s open during the day but gets busy mainly at night when there’s an unexpected liveliness in the market. Many people find it difficult to sleep and look for something to do because otherwise, the night hours pass slowly.
Several shops sell bicycles. A good bike costs around €60. The bike technicians go to the Jumbo store in Halkida to find the materials needed to build the two-wheelers, which are very popular with the nearly 1,000 children (39% of the facility’s population) who reside in the camp.
Ritsona rises in a muddy field
But let’s go back to 2016.
It was the night of March 14, when the first 500 refugees from the port of Piraeus were transferred to an abandoned military air force base in the industrial area of Ritsona. The recent closure of the border with Northern Macedonia had left more than 3,000 people trapped.
The previous afternoon, bulldozers from the municipality of Halkida and the prefecture had razed the pine trees in the area, leveled the ground, and set up the first tents.
That March was a rainy month, and the area quickly turned into a vast, muddy field. In the days that followed, more refugees arrived, mainly from Syria and Iraq. Their only contact with the outside world was with a few groups of volunteers, who provided basic necessities that were piled up in containers.
Salim Noah, now 31, was among the first refugees to settle in Ritsona, where he stayed with his family for seven months.
“When we got to Ritsona, we had a huge shock,” he told Solomon from Forbach, in northeastern France, where he lives today.
“It was raining and there were no buildings, only filthy, soaking-wet tents. The first days were catastrophic. Water was coming into the tents, it was cold, and for food, we had to go to a huge tent to get a sandwich.”
In the early months, he says, it was difficult even to take a shower. Nearly 800 people had to share three or four showers and the water was often cold.
Grand opening and the Minister’s statements
Some time later, some NGOs began operating in the facility. Some helped to register asylum seekers, others helped with distributing food and water.
Salim also decided to volunteer to help with activities and interpreting, realizing that he and his family could be in the facility for a long time and that he should remain strong “to help them, but also other people.”
A few months later, in November 2016, the tents were replaced with prefabricated houses with bathrooms and kitchens that made the conditions bearable. On the occasion of the “upgrade”, the facility was inaugurated, with the presence of, among others, the Minister of Migration, (at the time) Giannis Mouzalas.
“Housing facilities like this have enabled our country to ensure its own national dignity and to offer refugees and immigrants their own dignity, as much as possible, given the severe economic crisis we are experiencing,” Minister Giannis Mouzalas stated, who also pledged that the housing facilities “will be continuously improved” adding, “I think Ritsona is proof that we are doing what we said we would”.
“Even on Samos it was better”
Ali lives in one of the prefabricated houses, which four and a half years ago replaced the tents on the muddy ground of the facility. To be precise, the 30-year-old Afghan and his wife have been provided with a room of 9 square meters, in a communal house that they share with other families.
All in all, their room contains a shelf, a bunk bed, and a rug in the middle of the floor.
Awaiting a decision on his asylum application, Ali feels trapped in Ritsona. When he wants to spend some time alone, he walks through the fields, until he finds a spot far enough away from the rest of the world, and sits on the ground.
In the past, the view around him was the pine trees that surround the facility, but now all he can see is the solid cement wall.
Ali says that he preferred life in the Vathi camp on Samos, where he found himself when he crossed by boat from Turkey to Greece. Because there, he explains, despite the misery, asylum seekers could walk to the nearest city.
Without any money for the Afghan taxis, it’s been months since Ali has left the Ritsona camp.
A three-meter-high wall around the facility
The woman with the tired-looking face is from Afghanistan. She is 65 years old and she lives at the Ritsona camp with her children, one of whom is developmentally disabled.
On the day we met, at the end of last May, she told us that at least three weeks have passed since a bulldozer, which was carrying out work on the facility, crashed into a room in the house where they live, making the dwelling uninhabitable.
They have reported the damage, but despite the promises they were given, nothing has changed, she and her neighbors told us, as they invited us inside to see the dwelling.
The reason why bulldozers were in Ritsona last spring is due to the construction of a three-meter-high cement wall, which now surrounds not only Ritsona, but also many other facilities both on the mainland and on the islands.
Humanitarian organizations have criticized the government for turning the facilities into “prisons” and in addition to walls, there are plans to install security cameras, gates and X-ray machines, and drone surveillance − measures that the Ministry of Migration and Asylum, in one of Solomon’s reports, described as “modernization”.
In the case of Ritsona, however, the construction of a wall around the camp became a subject of public debate at least two years ago.
In 2019, the deputy mayor of the Municipality of Avlida, in addition to discussing the equal distribution of refugees throughout Greece and street lighting, spoke of “a suitably high and strong fence along a ring road, which will be electrified and monitored on a 24-hour basis, either by security guards or the police”.
Shouldering a bag of patience
When he lived in Ritsona, back in 2016, Salim Noah remembers dreaming that at some point he would “be freed from the camp and live a normal life”.
Today he is studying Interior Design, while he continues to paint with his brothers and to hold art exhibitions in various countries. For 28-year-old Ahmed Hyde and 29-year-old Khaled Hussein, two cousins from Palestine who have their own mobile phone accessories shop at the Ritsona camp, this scenario still seems far away.
The day we met them, the hostilities between Hamas and Israel raged on, and the two of them watched what’s happening from afar, having spent more than a year in the facility. “I came here for my daughter, but are these conditions fit for a child to live in?” said Ahmed, with his daughter sitting at his feet as they welcomed us into their shop.
His cousin has already been granted asylum and Ahmed is waiting for a response to his own application. They know it will probably be granted, as the rates of international protection for Palestinians are extremely high.
Until that happens, though, they will have to wait, for an unknown period of time. They know well, they said, what patience means. In this place, they added, you must carry a bag of patience on your shoulder. “And every now and then, you have to fill it more and more.”
This article is published in the context of Solomon’s in-depth series of reports on “Migrant workers in Greece in the time of COVID-19 ″ and is supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung Office in Greece.