Refugees in Greece – some clues

[This article first appeard in the German magazine 'off limits' and is published here with permission]

Despite the fact that Greece, due to itÕs geographical position, is a crossroad of moving populations, only very few of them apply for asylum, and even less are those who are recognized as refugees.
ItÕs indicating that within three years, 1998-2000, 358.140 foreigners were arrested by the Greek police forces for entering illegally in the country. Only 7.564 of them applied for asylum, while in the same period only 524 asylum seekers actually got it. The percentage of recognition was less than 7% in an already small number of applications. From 1980 until 2000 the Greek state has recognized as refugees only 6.513 persons. During the last years the recognized refugees come mainly from Iraq and Turkey (Kurds) and from Iran and Afghanistan. The main entering points are the Greek-Turkish boarders (crossing the river Evros) on road and the islands of East Aegean by sea. According to information by non-government organizations more than 200 persons lost their lives in sea, in torpor fields and on the rough mountains of North Greece in the last eight years.

The Refugees center in Lavrio.

In Greece there is only one stately refugee center for asylum seekers, in Lavrio, one city of almost 5000 residents, 55 km northeast from Athens. The last years non-government organizations organize smaller refugees center, three in the area of Attiki and one in Thessaloniki. The refugeeÕs center in Lavrio is under the administration of the Greek Ministry of Health, that has assigned the management of the center to the Greek Red Cross and the services of social, legal and educational support to International Social Service. The reception of the asylum seekers in the center takes place after discussions between the police services that receive the application for asylum, the Ministry and the management of the Center.
The Center is supposed to have the capacity to host 300 persons. In reality, the main construction is there since the beginning of the century and it has been used as a refugee center since 1950. It comprises almost 50 rooms, some of which have obvious functional problems (dump, leak of the piping system, insufficient lights) while in rooms of 10 square meters often live families of more than four members. The WC and the bathrooms as well as the dining room are commonly used, and in other words the building is at least inadequate especially when there total population of the center is 300 persons.
The Greek state does not provide any kind of economical help to people that seek for asylum inside or outside the refugeeÕs center. Clothing and things that are necessary for every day living (such as schoolÕ s material for children) is supplied by individuals and organizations donations. So, in order to cover their every day needs (even their tickets to Athens for medical examinations or legal matters), the adult refugees but often and children between 12-17 years old have to ask for job in Lavrio or in the suburbs. This situation is very problematic, considering also that these are areas with a high percentage of unemployment. It must be notified that the Greek government does not supply people that seek for asylum and live in a refugee center with working license. This means that the people of the center work part time in jobs with a low wage, mostly in the construction or in the port without insurance. Inside the Center (despite their requests) they are not supposed to participate in the management in any way, such as in the preparing of their meals and often the families have to prepare their food with the small income they get, inside the small room they are provided for living.
During the past years, in the Center there were classes of reception of the elementary school for the refugee children. These classes were like a ghetto, without any results in the learning level or in the level of socializing. Since last year – and after a great effort – the classes of reception were transferred to the local schools of the town, where they are till today, without having solved problems of discrimination. Often these children remain to separated classes for 2 or 3 years, despite the law and only few of them manage to go in a normal class and continue attending the school.
Inside the Center there is also a kindergarten but not a class for infants and this fact makes it difficult for parents (especially in a family with only one parent) to ask for job and the older children take care of the smaller. Also, there are programs of the International Social Service in progress for the teaching of Greek language to adults and children and for the supporting teaching to refugees-students.
The procedure of investigating the request for asylum by the Greek authorities takes a lot of time, considering that the answer on the first level is negative. So, most of the seeking asylum refugees that live in Lavrio remain in the Center more than a year and some of them for two or three years. Many of them decide to leave the Center, in their try to find better conditions of living in other places of Greece and some others choose to leave the country illegally and travel to other European countries, no matter how dangerous this is. Their destination is mostly Germany, France, England and Scandinavian countries, using as transitory country Italy.

What happens after the Refugees' Center?

Once the final answer in the matter of asylum is given, positive or negative, the refugees that live in the Center have to leave from there in a month. Those to whom the state of being refugees has been recognized the Greek government doesnÕ t provide any kind of economical or other support, such as finding house or job. Non-government organizations, like the Greek Council for the Refugees and the Foundation of Social Work, have some occasional programs of rent or loads helping, during a short time and for few receivers. At the end, the recognized refugee has a five-years lasting license to stay in the country and a working one and he has to solve the problem of finding job and house for him and his family without any help. Most of them live in underground flats in the downtown of Athens with low rents and work occasionally in labor jobs mostly. A high percentage decide to make use of the traveling documents they are being provided with and to settle in some other European countries. The same happens to those who are not recognized as a refugee. The only difference is that they have either to stay and work in the country illegally, having always the fear of been expelled, or to take the risk of leaving the country illegally, strengthening in this way the slave-traffic.

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