Illustration: Fanis Kollias
Edit: Iliana Papangeli
It was on a rainy Valentines Day this year, when around two hundred refugees living in a hotel near Corinth found themselves on the side of the road with all their belongings. The wrapping up of the “Filoxenia” programme, a “temporary” housing initiative for “the most vulnerable migrants,” funded by the EU and run by IOM, was marked by many losing the roof over their heads.
Hotels, which had been part of the housing programme, closed, and reports from Sparta to Chalkida suggested that similar scenes were happening across the country.
Mohammed smiles widely as he turns on the video of his camera phone. He waves at the other families, who are camped out on the side of the road, living in tents in front of the hotel they once inhabited. He pokes his head into a friend’s tent, who is cooking on a makeshift stove and then unzips another to say hello to another family. Their daughter, around seven years old, grabs his phone as she smiles broadly into the camera, “I want to go to school,” she says and then again, “I want to go to school.”
Mohammed, who is 35 years old and from Iraq, says all he wants is the travel documents which would allow him to leave Greece. The rest of his family has theirs but he can’t seem to get an appointment with the relevant authorities. “We want to find a job, to work, to give our families food and to rent houses, we don’t want to bother the Greek citizens,” he said, “and yes I want to go to Germany because I have three languages but I couldn’t find a job [here].”
Mohammed worked for the American army after they invaded Iraq. He was a local security guard in Al-Qa’im, a town nearly 400 km northwest of Baghdad, but had to leave when he and other local men working for the Americans were threatened by Al-Qaeda. “I learned my English from the Americans,” he says.
Mohammed lived in the hotel a year and a half before he was evicted, now they are struggling to make do on the street, “we can’t bring water, we can’t cook anything, our babies are sick,” he says.
The police come everyday and tell them to move on, but they have nowhere to go, at least until they get their documents. The hotel has cut off electricity and water so they can’t even use the facilities. Mohammed says, the local mayor is trying to find a solution but for now they are still homeless.
Ali is 30 years old and from Syria. “If it wasn’t for the fear of being arrested in Syria, I would have been a journalist,” he says. He and his family were evicted from their hotel around one hour north of Athens on 8th March.
The eviction was gradual. At first IOM came to them with a list of names who had to leave the hotel, he says. Everyone refused until they got their documents but they were then told it was the ministry’s decision. Slowly the hotel started to cut off the facilities, such as the heating and access to the laundry room.
He and his family woke up every morning expecting an eviction by the police, as he had seen happen to others. In the meantime he says he talked to people from IOM, who told him he was out of the programme and that he had to sign up for Helios, a programme designed to provide housing and integration support; but which anecdotal evidence has suggested is not always easy to access.
The morning the police came to evict them, they also took some, including Ali to the police station. “[It] reminded us of the arrests in Syria,” he says. When the police came to his room, his wife and children started crying. “I told them I didn’t commit any crime.” He was taken away in handcuffs and questioned at the police station about his financial situation and what he would do next. Ali received a message from his wife saying that people from the hotel had put all their belongings in plastic bags and left it on the street.
“We had nothing but to stay on the street. We put up the tents and sat down,” he says. “I’m stunned, I came out of Syria carrying my university degree and my family and all my ambition for a better life. But I was shocked that this happened to me in a country that I wanted to be a safe haven for me.” All he wants to do now is get the rest of his documents and leave the country.
Forced into voluntary “disappearance”
Even though integration programmes such as “Helios” are in principle an option, for many they present another threshold of bureaucracy unimaginable when they are still waiting for months, sometimes years, to receive all their papers from their asylum process. For those evicted, many of whom had already struggled to get their children admitted to Greek schools, they just wanted to leave the country.
Volunteers from NGO Vasilika Moon who had been supporting people who ended up homeless said the chaos at the end of the programme was avoidable, “the Filoxenia program always had a scheduled finish. Yet, it’s inconceivable that there was no plan B for these people that had already been granted protection. In these accommodation centres, they were out of sight and conveniently out of mind.”
Tihomir Sabchev, a researcher focussing on refugee integration in Greece and Italy said that the Filoxenia programme was just another example of the failure of integration. “This is the symptom of the chronic reception problem in Greece – a system designed to make people voluntarily disappear, with or without asylum,” he said. “When you have projects which provide only food and shelter and no integration whatsoever for many years, then you have two options. You either plan to provide this forever, because people will never become independent, or you just rely that they will disappear on their own.”
For Ali and Mohammed, the moment they get their long awaited documents this is exactly what they will do, “disappear” somewhere else they believe will work better for them.
*IOM told Solomon that Filoxenia was always implemented in coordination with Greek authorities and that the project closed on February 28th. “Following the gradual closing of facilities hosted this week some 400 recognized refugees, including vulnerable population, and IOM is in close coordination with the Greek authorities to provide those people with suitable accommodation solutions. Asylum seekers have been transferred to other accommodation facilities (apartments/camps) by the Ministry,” a spokesperson said and added that it had intensified efforts to enroll people into the Helios integration programme.
*The pictures were provided by the refugees of the story and are published with their consent.