asylum seekers

Illustration by Joaquin Kunkel

The Long, Uncertain Wait for Asylum Seekers in Athens

While the world cheered on the refugee athletes at the Rio Olympics, thousands of forgotten asylum seekers passed another week in old stadiums, hoping and waiting.

Sep 4, 2016

This summer, everyone’s eyes were on the 10 refugees who competed in the Rio Olympics. Spectators around the world learned the story of Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini, who swam three hours in the Mediterranean pushing a boat full of other refugees. U.S. President Barack Obama even tweeted that #TeamRefugees “prove that you can succeed no matter where you are from.” While I wish this idealism were true, I cannot help but think of the thousands of other refugees and asylum seekers I saw this summer, living over 9000 kilometers away from Rio in abandoned Olympic stadiums in Athens, without an audience and certainly without applause.
obama tweet
This past weekend also marked a year since the death of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old found washed up on a Turkish beach after a boat, meant to carry his family to safety, capsized. Although the photo of Aylan’s body sparked global sympathy and outrage, the circumstances that led to his death have not changed. Yusra Mardini’s three-hour swim was necessary because one year later, there is still no safe route for people fleeing war to apply for asylum in Europe. In order to gain refugee status in the EU, people embark on a deadly journey across the Mediterranean, a route that has already cost over 3,000 people their lives this year.
However, arriving on Greece’s shores is only the beginning of their journey toward asylum. I spent this summer with professor Sophia Kalantzakos in Athens, Greece, researching the refugee situation. We interviewed volunteers, policymakers, service providers and asylum seekers. With this research, I hoped to gain a better understanding of the journeys and conditions for asylum seekers in Athens. In these interviews, asylum seekers in Greece expressed confusion and frustration and felt that they had been forgotten.
Though the media often conflates refugees with asylum seekers, there is an important distinction. Anyone fleeing their home country to seek protection elsewhere is considered an asylum seeker until the government of the receiving country officially approves their application for refugee status. Formal refugee status grants the refugee the right to healthcare, education, work and reunification with family members.
Since Greece’s northern borders closed in March, an estimated 57,000 asylum seekers are currently stuck in Greece, awaiting information about whether they will be deported or granted refugee status, whether they will be permitted to reunify with family members in other European countries or to relocate at all. Shortly before we arrived in Greece, the government bulldozed the unofficial Idomeni camp at the northern border, where several thousand asylum seekers had settled in the hopes that the borders would re-open again and they could continue their journey to other European countries. Many of the people who had been living at Idomeni returned to Athens after the camp’s destruction to wait for more information.
During our time in Greece, the pre-registration of asylum applicants had begun. All Syrians and Arabic speakers not living in formal camps had to pre-register by calling a single Skype account during a weekly three-hour window. With thousands of people attempting to make contact during this weekly window, it took many people weeks or even months to finally connect their calls. Once they successfully got through on Skype, callers would be given a code that would allow them to pre-register in person at the asylum office in Athens. Several days or weeks after pre-registering, applicants are texted the date and time of their asylum interview appointment, which takes place five to seven months after they pre-registered. In the meantime, all they can do is hope that the wait will be worthwhile.
Syrians who arrived in Greece before the EU-Turkey deal was enacted on March 20 are the most likely to be granted refugee status. Those who arrived on Greece’s shores after March 20 are nervous to even apply for asylum, lest they be deported back to Turkey, where they would likely live in substandard conditions without the right to work. Similarly, Afghans are not eligible for relocation out of Greece, so many choose not to risk applying for asylum at all.
Housing conditions for asylum seekers in Athens vary widely. Some families may apply to be housed in vacant apartments through an organization called Praksis. This option perhaps offers the most independence and comfort, but one family we spoke to also felt more isolated from other asylum seekers — they were worried that they could not stay as informed about the services available to them and the next steps in the asylum process. Other asylum seekers around the city can stay in formal camps, the best of which is run by the municipality of Athens and provides personal containers, beds, running water and educational programming for children.
Eleonas Camp
Photograph by Annalisa Galgano
Asylum seekers staying in the abandoned Olympic hockey and baseball stadiums-turned-UNHCR camps live in standard-issue white UNHCR tents. While the rest of the world cheered on the ten refugee athletes competing at the Rio Olympics, thousands of forgotten asylum seekers passed another week in these old Olympic stadiums, hoping and waiting.
Just outside the stadium is the abandoned Elliniko airport, which has also become an unofficial camp for over a thousand Afghans. Again, the location of the camp stings with irony. The board in the Departures area of the old airport still lists the flight times and gates for forgotten planes departing to Germany, the UK and many other places where Afghans are not eligible for asylum. A similar informal camp was established at Piraeus Port, where many asylum seekers had pitched tents after arriving from the islands. However, this camp was evacuated in July, and residents were asked to move into an alternate camp. Most people express resistance to moving into formal camps, particularly the military-run camps outside of the city, for fear that once their presence is no longer visible in Athens they will be forgotten altogether.
In all the camps, people told us they found it difficult to find ways to pass the time. The food rations, the lack of productive activities, the heat of the summer and the unsettling uncertainty about the future contributed to the high tensions in the camps. However, each of the camps is maintained by the passion and energy of Greek government workers, NGOs and volunteers, both local and foreign. Volunteers largely use social media to keep track of independent individuals and organizations who are helping with the crisis, to channel new volunteers to where they are most needed and to dispel rumors with correct information. Despite the ongoing economic crisis in Greece, everyday citizens have expressed their solidarity with asylum seekers by giving their time, resources and talents to improve the living conditions and maintain the dignity of asylum seekers in Greece.
Refugees Welcome
Photograph by Annalisa Galgano
For example, the residents of Exarcheia — a neighborhood in Greece known for anarchists — have helped convert several abandoned buildings, including an old school and a vacant hotel, into new self-organized accommodations for asylum seekers. Residents in these squats actually seem to thrive more than other asylum seekers we met in camps, partially because the residents themselves are responsible for the squats’ operations. Because most of the squats do not accept assistance from NGOs or the government, residents and local Greek volunteers — who refer to themselves as solidarians — self-organize cooking, cleaning, and childcare rotations.
I had the opportunity to meet several Syrian adults and children who had learned near-fluent English during their stay in Hotel City Plaza, the previously abandoned hotel in Exarcheia. By giving asylum seekers control and choice in small ways, such as allowing them to cook for themselves and pursue educational opportunities, solidarians in Greece restored some measure of dignity to people who have been engulfed by uncontrollable circumstances.
I was constantly struck by the resilience and solidarity of the communities that I met in Athens. Shortly before I left Athens, I was invited to celebrate the end of Ramadan at Hotel City Plaza. That night, Syrians, Afghans and Greeks celebrated Eid together by dancing, sharing desserts, and Skyping loved ones back at home or scattered elsewhere around the world. That evening, it seemed that people felt at one with their new community and with Muslims around the world. That evening, I don’t think anyone felt forgotten.
In recent months, solidarians and asylum seekers have organized several protests in Athens and Thessaloniki to pressure governments and international organizations to act more quickly in establishing safe, legal paths to asylum and family reunification. Families, children, and local volunteers occupy the square in front of the Parliament building and insisting upon their own visibility. Despite the international spotlight moving away from the Olympics and the ‘usual’ recurring images of the refugee crisis, asylum seekers alongside their Greek supporters are asking that the world does not forget them. They need more than two weeks’ applause in a stadium far away.
Annalisa Galgano is a contributing writer. Email her at
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