Once a gateway for illegal immigrants hoping to hop a ferry to Europe, the Greek port of Patras is now a dead end, where refugees must now also face growing hostility from the popular Neo-Nazi political party Golden Dawn.
PATRAS – One is dragging his foot, swollen and turning blue. The other shows his dislocated wrist and complains: "How will I work once I'm in Europe?" The third one is hiding, scared. A week ago, all three were attacked by plain-clothed men who assaulted them and shouted racist insults as they were coming back from another attempt to board a ship leaving from Patras Harbor for Italy.
Rachid, Khaled and Rafik don't have the strength for another attempt. The three Algerians squat in the Piraiki Patraiki factory, a huge area of crumbling walls with abandoned shoes and pans. About 1000 Afghan, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and African refugees lived there until they were deported at the end of May.
About 200 meters from here, on May 19, an Afghan migrant stabbed a young Greek man to death during a fight. For three nights, angry locals soon joined by 300 helmeted young men armed with iron bars, besieged the factory. They were Golden Dawn activists – the neo-Nazi party that entered the Greek Parliament after the elections in May – who were brought here by busloads. The police broke up the fighting, and each side went back home with its wounded. Afterwards, the police came back to throw the migrants out.
"Their turn to sweat bullets'
Since then, Patras' thousands of transiting migrants have gone underground, after being driven out from the city center by repeated assaults and obvious hostility. "Before, we were the ones who were scared, but now it's their turn to sweat bullets," rejoices Kostas, a fruit and vegetable vendor. Golden Dawn arrived in town four weeks ago and settled on Germany Street. Since anarchist activists ransacked their offices in March, its door remains closed most of the time.
"Dozens of people immediately joined the party, or other racist groups, as if they were just waiting for this," says Harry, from the Praxis organization, which helps underage migrants. The organization, as well as three others migrant advocacy groups like it, had to stop working after the incidents: social workers, who feel threatened, don't walk around town looking for migrants anymore; in any case, most of them have gone into hiding.
Twenty-three-year-old Soufiane ventures in the city center for the first time in five days. The young man arrived a year and a half ago, and is waiting to embark for France. In the meantime, he takes Greek lessons, provided by Praxis. "It's just in case I have to stay," he explains.
He is not really reassured by his last encounter with "fascists." They asked him if he was Moroccan and then let him go: "First, we are going to deal with the Afghans. Then it's going to be your turn."
To find the Afghans, you need to leave town, and go deep into the tall bush that covers the Gulf of Corinth's dunes. Here, about thirty teenagers are slumped in the shadow of a tarpaulin, next to a roofless building. Half of them came after the Piraiki Patraiki events. Seventeen-year-old Abdullah is the oldest here: he arrived in Greece seven years ago with his older brother, who has since left for Sweden. Each paid 4,000 euros to make the trip from Kabul and across the Evros River, which is the natural border between Greece and Turkey.
The gateway to Europe
In 2011, 57,000 people were stopped by the Greek police and the European Union agency Frontex (which stands for European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union), as they tried to cross this 200-kilometer border. Since Italy and Spain have strengthened border controls, Frontex considers that 90% of illegal immigrants enter the European Union via Greece. Patras is something like the wide side of a funnel: its ferries leaving every day for Italy make it one of the main exit doors of the country.
After the incidents and with the elections, the municipality decided to do some housecleaning. Hundreds of migrants were arrested and sent all over Greece. Nineteen-year-old Ahmed was sent to Athens by bus. He walked all the way back to Patras. According to concurring sources, many buses don't go all the way to Athens: the immigrants are left in the middle of nowhere, relieved of their money and phone. The same sources hint at violent beatings. "When we go to police stations to apply for asylum, we sometimes meet migrants with bruised faces. But no one will tell us what happened to them," Katerina Skilakou, from the Regional Institute for Migrations, points out.
To cope with Athens' sins – there's only one detention center in the capital – and after condemnation from the European Court of Human Rights, several European countries stopped sending migrants back to Greece. The country is unable to deal with the approximately 400,000 illegal immigrants living on its soil – in addition to more than a million legal immigrants, for 11 million inhabitants. Those who receive their deportation order have 30 days to leave the country – but usually just vanish into thin air. Concerning asylum seekers, only a few of them are processed and it can take years to obtain a visa.
A little farther down the beach, we meet 16-year-old Firoz and Bashir, who arrived together from the Afghan province of Kunduz eight months ago. They don't try their luck on the harbor anymore: "It has become impossible to embark on a boat, they have installed cameras and the security guards have become very fierce. We are trapped here!"
As we walk towards the city, beach umbrellas replace the makeshift camps we saw further down the beach. Fred walks between towels, trying to sell the counterfeit watches he bought 5 euros for 7 euros. This Nigerian is an exception: he chose Greece, "the country of culture." He arrived six months ago, and spent four months going from police stations to detention centers. "When I finally left, I was as skinny as skeleton, and I still had no idea what they were on about." While he was in detention, on every scrap of paper or cardboard he could find, Fred wrote songs: "Greece is a wonderful country/Lord, give her the wisdom," he sings softly.
Read the original article in French.
Photo - UNHCR/Zalmai