The Pedion tou Areos (Field of Mars), at 25 hectares the biggest park in the center of Athens, built to commemorate the heroes of the 1821 revolution. It was refurbished some years ago at a cost of more than nine million euros, but has since gone slightly to seed, like much else in Athens. Drug users lurk in shady corners. And now a new dimension has been added to this landscape: rows of small, colorful tents line the Avenue of Heroes, clotheslines are strung between trees. Afghan refugees started this camp a couple of weeks ago and their numbers are swelling by the day. Amongst them are small children and pregnant women.
This scenario is repeated in squares and on pavements throughout the city. Shopkeepers around offer the refugees food, but they don’t want them there. It’s bad for business, and business is bad anyway. Charitable organizations do the best they can. There is little help from the state.
Hundreds of immigrants are arriving every day on the islands across from Turkey. More than 48.000 have come in the first semester of 2015, compared with 43.000 for the whole of 2014.
Exhausted, scared and lost, they are forced to wait for days in difficult conditions before being ‘processed’ by overworked officials in understaffed and underfunded local authority offices. Sometimes fights break out between nationalities: if the Afghans believe the Syrians are receiving better treatment, for example. When cleared, they make their way to Athens. But they don’t want to stay in Greece, where people are already struggling under an unbearable burden. Their dream is to end up in Germany, or get to England via France. Some have relatives there. There is chaos at the Larisa train station, chaos at Patras port, where they try to stow aboard lorries going to Italy.
And we are talking about those that have actually made it across. In the old days, slavers had to make sure the merchandise at least arrived in a fit state to be sold. Modern traffickers – or ‘brokers’ as they like to call themselves – demand to be paid in advance. Then they just pile the human cargo into boats made for a tenth of their number, if that, and set them loose upon the seas – sometimes with not even enough fuel to make land. Boats are left to the care of teenage captains, the tanks empty, people locked in the hold.
Many drown. The rest are rescued by the coastguard. Unfortunately, more rescue missions have resulted in increased traffic, as was seen with the Mare Nostrum operation in Italy. The traffickers are on a constant search for new routes, new methods of transport.
How can Europe deal with such a massive transfer of populations, on a scale never seen before in history?
In the twenty-first century, in a society where the accumulation of material goods is a given, these people have NOTHING. It’s a concept difficult to comprehend. No clothes, no food, no papers, no home. Nothing. It is impossible to put oneself in the place of humans so desperate they are willing to leave behind everything they know, to risk life and limb, and who then arrive in a country where they are destitute, do not speak the language, and are repelled by all available means.
In an article entitled ‘You’re Better Than This, Europe’, Nils MUIZNIEKS writes:
Europe needs to take a long, hard look at itself — and at the reality of the refugee issue. The European Union could start by overhauling its laws governing asylum and migration. By increasing legal avenues for migrants to reach Europe, with measures like eased humanitarian visas and family reunification rules, it would reduce the number of migrants taking perilous routes. That would help cut the ground from beneath the feet of smugglers, who grow richer when migration restrictions are harsh. (International New York Times, JUNE 28, 2015)
Europe, however, seems far from up to the task. Horrifying scenes are taking place on each side of the Channel. Meanwhile, the Hungarians are building a fence with Serbia to keep them out. Police and army are used to ‘secure’ borders. And each country, if you read the press, is mostly concerned with its own problems, while trying to foist the blame and the responsibility onto everyone else.
There is no doubt that the situation needs to be brought under control, especially since rumors abound that the boats are used to bring over ISIS militants from Libya amongst the refugees. There are no obvious or easy solutions, but the only way forward is for all countries to work together. Europe has to realize there is a huge, potentially explosive problem staring it in the face; a problem which must be dealt with quickly, decisively and, above all, humanely.
We must never forget we are dealing with people here, people who today are mostly perceived as a threat. But a lot of them have escaped conditions so horrific it would be inhuman to send them back. And immigration, if properly managed, can enrich societies in many ways.
Greece had to deal with a major wave of immigrants in the years 1990-2011, after the fall of communism. These were mostly from Rumania, Bugaria and Albania, but also eventually from all over the world. Although there have been problems – notably a rise in criminality as gangs infiltrated the country – a lot of these immigrant integrated successfully. They learnt Greek, made friends, blended in, set up businesses. And if some report instances of racism in their work or social environment, a recent study showed that this does not extend to their children attending Greek school. A new law is in the process of being passed, which will ease the acquiring of Greek nationality for these children. Ironically, quite a few of these immigrants have now gone back to their countries, where conditions have improved compared to the deteriorating ones in Greece.