The definition of Dystopia

Greece is being threatened with the closure of its borders, effectively trapping hundreds of thousands of refugees who have made it across the sea from Turkey.  We are being accused that, for refugees who see Greece as a transit point on their journey north,  ‘Athens is happy to oblige, waving them through, providing transport, but never hosting the caravan of humanity wending its way into central Europe.’

We are also blamed for ‘not ‘protecting our borders’, thus endangering the social fabric of other European countries.

Greeks are furious about this ‘blame game’. We have been offered money in return for keeping the refugees, an offer that is deeply insulting. How about our own social fabric? From as far back as the 80s, Greece has already hosted a vast amount of refugees: Asians and Africans, Palestinians and Kurds, and, after the dissolution of the communist bloc, people from Eastern Europe, especially Albanians, Bulgarians and Rumanians. A large percentage of these are now very well assimilated, speaking the language perfectly and blending in with their neighbours—despite the usual bureaucratic shambles regarding their documents. In a population of around 11 million, around one million are immigrants.


This society, already strained to breaking point by six years of internationally mandated austerity, is now asked to accept responsibility for an unprecedented situation for which it is certainly not to blame. It is a fact that the Greek government has not fulfilled all its duties in this matter yet. But which government has? We have seen the rapid deterioration of the situation in Germany – Mrs. Merkel’s neck is on the line for her open-door policy. We read daily about the situation on the Hungarian border, or in the Jungle in Calais. And now the tinder-box is to be kept solely within our borders, courtesy of our European partners and allies.


It is certain Europe cannot accept everyone, and the terrorist dimension has added complications to the issue. A lot of the able-bodied young men wanting to take advantage of social benefits available elsewhere should be returned home. People have worked for those benefits for generations, and it is normal they should want to protect their way of life.  But everyone has to work together towards a solution, and the Arab countries have to do their bit as well. Finally, Turkey has been promised three billion euro to deal with the problem – yet that is where most of the trafficking takes place.
Greece cannot and must not be turned into a dystopia, a giant campsite, or, as some have said, into Europe’s prison.


Frontex has declared it is impossible to patrol a coastline which includes 117 inhabited islands (there are 6000 islands in total, including some that are just large rocks). So how are we supposed to do it? Surely the refugees should be stopped in Turkey, before they drown as they are doing on a daily basis, now the seas have turned cold and rough—but apparently the traffickers are offering cheap ‘off season’ rates. Every single day, we wake up to the news: 12 drowned, 7 drowned and so on, all on our shores. Some can be saved – what are we supposed to do, throw them back into the sea?

I will finish with an account, freely translated, written by islander Nina Giorgiadou:

‘Today was another ‘normal’ day. For us normality has gone beyond seeing your children unemployed and depressed, not being able to pay a new lot of taxes, or having your property confiscated.
Our normality has been enriched by repeated doses of mass death, packaged in black bags that are piled, when full, one upon the other.
Here is a resume of today’s normality.

We were woken in the dead of night by one of those phone calls that make your heart race. We ran to the port, bearing clothes, blankets, hot tea and a tendency to rapid depression.
The first body arrived before dawn. A small bundle, probably a child. Then came 26 survivors. The 12 were more dead than alive, deeply hypothermic; they were piled rapidly into ambulances.
The rest who were more ‘alive’ we undressed and rubbed down, muttering endless and meaningless times ‘Ok, my friend, tamam,’ all mixed up with a lot of tears and snot since there’s no time to wipe your nose when hurrying to dress the frozen.
Afterwards, our normality included 13 more bodies, big and small, and an attempt not to vomit. Where to put so many dead?
To continue within the framework of normality, we received ten boxes of body bags. To do what with? Let’s put them aside for times of need. The industry operating around death is impressive.

The next phase includes scattered images within the shelter.
Aliki is holding in her arms the 15-year-old girl who has lost her parents and both siblings. Aliki is the smaller of the two. You  have to wonder—who is consoling whom?
Vasilia has gathered the children in a corner of the high-ceilinged space we gracefully call ‘the playground’. They are the offspring of those
who arrived the day before yesterday. Today not a single child was saved. Vasilia is telling stories in a low voice. In Greek. They listen as if they understand. She has her way. Stories always have a way.
Outside, the coastguard boat is passing again. How many? Around twenty? How many were you, Sam, on the rust bucket?
Sixty or eighty. We’re missing twenty lives. They will never be found. They will never even be listed as missing.
Tomorrow is the day for identifying the dead. Our normality will be transported to the morgue. It will be a little more tense, I suppose. But it will still be our normality. Distorted, but normal.
Oh yes! The clock shows it is already tomorrow.
Another normal day will soon dawn.


(Borrowed from the blog of katerinafullermoon)

The refugee crisis revisited

My heart sank when I read in the paper that Burkina Faso is on the brink of civil war. More people wanting to come over here, was my first thought.
The refugee crisis has gone on for so long, and is so out of control, that serious political and economic dimensions have been added to the humanitarian aspect.

On the one hand, it has become big business. Here is some number crunching:
It costs a minimum of €1200 per person for the passage from Bodrum to Kos. For 50 people in each boat this equals a whopping €60.000! And that’s just for a short crossing – I have no idea what traffickers from Libya make, when they pile 700-800 people into a rust bucket and cast it off without enough fuel to reach Italy…
Once you get to Greece, apparently kickbacks are extracted everywhere: €200 to get to the head of the queue, €200 to get on the bus, and so on. A lot of these ‘facilitators’ are themselves Syrian.
It’s €4000 from Morocco across the straights of Gibraltar to Tarifa in Spain. By jet ski! Although it is very dangerous since it is beyond the safe range, the trip must be undertaken under cover of darkness and the water is freezing.
For wealthier Syrians, safer, more comfortable trips can be arranged via Dubai to Turkey, then from Izmir to Rhodes on larger boats. A few more thousand euros then have to be paid out in taxis, hotels and fake documents. I read an interview with a Syrian doctor who had turned ‘travel agent’ after failing to cross over himself – he was saying people trust him because he’s a doctor and prided himself on not having a single person die on his boats.

On the other hand, attitudes are hardening:
Donald Tusk, the EU president, has claimed that migrants are being sent to Europe as a campaign of “hybrid warfare” to force concessions to its neighbors. An influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees becomes a “weapon” and a “political bargaining chip” used by the EU’s neighbors who want to put pressure on Europe to obtain extra aid or other benefits.
Mr Tusk warned that the Schengen system of passport-free travel would collapse and Europe would become a “breeding ground of fear” unless Europe’s external borders are secure. There is mounting frustration in Brussels at President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s refusal to seal Turkey’s coasts and border with Greece.

At the same time, a controversial plan to relocate 160,000 people from Greece and Italy to other parts of the EU by quota was announced.
The countries that refused this project, one of which is Romania, claimed that the immigrants will alter the fabric of their society. That’s as it may be, but people from these countries have themselves emigrated in the not so distant past. Greece accepted more than 20,000 Romanian refugees after the fall of communism. Did they ask themselves if they would alter the fabric of our society?

Unfortunately, the West does bear a part of responsibility for this situation, by meddling in these people’s countries. As usual, economic interests are mostly to blame. For one, the arms industry needs wars in order to make a profit – then there is oil, and minerals, and construction… Now we have to deal with the fall-out. Theoretically, it would make a lot more sense to spend the money making their countries safe for them, than dealing with them in Europe. It is probably too late now. Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, has suggested there should be a safe haven organized for them in the Middle East. I don’t know how feasible that would be, but I do think the Arab world should be doing more to help.

Meanwhile, in Athens, the situation remains dire.

On September 30th, a friend of mine went to Victoria Square, in downtown Athens, to evaluate the migrant situation first-hand. This is what she wrote:

‘Flanked by three friends, all laden with bags bulging with juice boxes, cans of long-life milk, packets of biscuits and cereal bars, markers, children’s books and clothes, I exited my car on the busiest side of the square. We were immediately accosted by tens of people, including many children.
I wasn’t psychologically prepared to be faced with such palpable desperation. The situation was worse than I’d imagined. And a thousand times more unsettling, too.
People grabbed at the bags, tore them straight out of our hands, served themselves to as many goods as they could carry. We made sure the children received priority but, soon, we were mobbed by grown men, too.
It was actually pretty terrifying. If you don’t see it first hand, it’s hard to fathom how bad it is.
Turns out the people here were not political refugees from Syria. These were all illegal immigrants from Afghanistan. I was shocked to find that they were not even all that grateful for the things we’d brought.
I certainly don’t regret going, but, having said that, I value my safety and I’m not about to go back any time soon. I would not recommend that unprepared civilians intervene, but I did approach a harried-looking volunteer from Holland who shed some light as to what you can do if you really must help in person.

1- Bring warm clothing, blankets and socks. With winter coming, this is what they will need the most.
2- Bring food, always a necessity.
3- Circulate with a zippered bag rather than paper or plastic, both of which tear easily, and hand the goods out directly to the people you choose. Keep moving. Stay too long in one place and you will be mobbed. (Easier said than done.)
4- Prioritize women and children. The men come third.
5- Make sure you are not carrying valuables. Gypsies who roam amongst the Afghans are quick to pounce on unsuspecting strangers.

The situation is really too bad to be true and pressing questions arise: where will all these people live should they choose—or be forced—to stay here? After all, they can’t camp out forever.’



Other friends who ventured to Victoria square told me approximately the same things, adding, however, that the baker where they went to buy food for the refugees gave them ten loaves which he also cut into pieces for them.The same thing happened to us, when we went to buy medicines for them at a pharmacy. The pharmacist added a large number of freebies to our bag. Greeks, whatever their other faults, remain human and sensitive to the pain of their fellow men.

Roger Cohen, writing in the New York Times, says:

Greece has made me think about everything statistics don’t tell you. No European country has been as battered in recent years. No European country has responded with as much consistent humanity to the refugee crisis.

For the whole article, click here.

A question of humanity

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
From Home by Warsan Shire, a Somali poet

Yannis is a baker on an Athens street. He’s finding it harder and harder to go out of his shop, because of the smell. People, lots of people, are camped outside, in tents. Some just sleep on the pavement. He’s been giving them bread, but how long can this go on? One week follows the next, and his regular customers are dwindling. They’re making a detour to another bakery, because the smell is awful and the spectacle heartbreaking.
People have been giving the refugees food, but they have nowhere to wash themselves or their clothes. Mostly, they have no toilets. At least it’s summer, so they’re not cold at night, but during the day the sun is merciless.
Many such scenes of desperation are played out on the refugee route from the Greek islands through Athens and then north, towards Germany or Calais, for those whose aim is the UK. Another route starts in Italy.

In some places, a distinct note of xenophobia if not racism is creeping in. The migrants have variously been described as ‘marauding’ and ‘swarming’. Some countries have been trying to keep them out by any means.  In a photograph that made the front pages, a man with mournful brown eyes is handing a baby dressed in a pink onesie over rolls of razor wire on the Hungarian border. Czech officials caused a scandal by stamping refugees’ arms with numbers. The Italians have closed the border at Brennero. Passengers on the Eurostar remained stranded in the dark for hours after the train was stopped because of refugees walking on the track and on the roof.

imageAngela Merkel has said that the migration crisis is a bigger test for the European Union than the Greek financial meltdown. To my mind, she’s the first European leader to have grasped the immensity and urgency of the problem and to have taken responsibility for dealing with it. Thanks to her handling, Germany has regained the moral high ground. It has been obliged to lead in this matter due to the incapacity of the rest of Brussels to deal with the problem.

Merkel has been heard to remark that what Germany is living through now will change the face of the country over the next few years. The same is true for the whole of Europe, and it is up to Europe to make this issue as positive as possible. After all, the populations of both Europe and the U.S. are to a large degree made up of immigrants.

Sadly, some refugees who ‘made it’ report the experience was ‘not worth it’. These are people who paid all they had, risked death multiple times, had to eat grass to survive, were kidnapped and held captive for ransom on the way, then nearly drowned, and finally spent months in camps – only to find a lonely existence, excluded from local society, struggling to learn a foreign language and strange customs, in the hope of getting a menial job. They tell the ones left back home not to do it. But no one listens.

Why? Because things at home are much, much worse. People don’t leave all they know on a whim. It is interesting to read On Encouragement, an essay by Helen Jones:

They have no choice.

It is appalling that by failing to agree on how this crisis could be confronted, the EU is now fostering a new species of international crime. Illegal migration is now big business. Not only are these displaced people being robbed, terrorized and sometimes killed by gangsters, they are also being preyed upon by political manipulators.

The degree of collective irresponsibility is truly shocking. In Greece, for example, the authorities have spectacularly delayed in setting up the structures that would allow them to draw upon an EU fund available for the purpose. The blame game is shameful to behold. What is going on in most of Europe is way beyond the limits of what should be acceptable to any enlightened society.


You have all seen the images: of the toddler washed up on the shore, of the overflowing boats, the tents, the crowds. I will not post more. You can read the statistics, the declarations, the arguments. I have no arguments. But if you want to know what it’s like for them, read The Rahma Diaries blog, and especially the post A Letter from one Mother to Another. Rahma is a mother with a baby, and she can write.

And read Russell Chapman’s blog post: Escape to Freedom. Bringing a Syrian Family to Safety. Russell is a freelance writer and photographer who undertook to help a family travel from Athens to ‘a particular country in Europe’. Hair-raising and harrowing.

Photos by Anna Koenig

Banana Cake

An update on the immigrant situation at Pedio tou Areos

imageWhile politicians and officials are sitting in air-conditioned offices, debating the Immigrant Question, on-the-spot action is being taken in Athens.
The ladies of the Melissa Network – an organization of immigrant women from many countries whose aim is to help integration and address all the issues associated with immigration – have rolled up their sleeves. Especially touched by the plight of the children present amongst this new wave of arrivals, some of whom are unaccompanied, they decided to lend a helping hand. Since last Monday, they are preparing breakfast for more than 200 kids daily: banana or carrot cake, cookies, sandwiches, cereal bars.

These are women who rise at 5.30 a.m. and work for ten hours a day. Then they get home and get in the kitchen. They have no funding and pay for everything with their own money. Fortunately, they do get some assistance from the neighborhood: many shopkeepers as well as private citizens do what they can to help them.

Another organization is also there to support. The “A Different Person” Community Kitchen is a group of people who cook in the street. So that the needy do not feel embarrassed about receiving charity, everyone cooks and eats together.
They say:

The impetus for the “Different Person” community kitchen was when we saw people of all ages, nationalities, ethnicities, and social classes looking through the left-overs at Athens farmers’ markets in an effort to gather food that they could not afford to buy. The first response was to cook food at home and try to distribute for free at the farmers’ markets. We then asked vendors to each donate one product from their stands so that we could continue the next day. After that, we decided instead to both cook and eat together in an effort to combat the shame of receiving a free cooked meal. Another purpose of our community kitchen is to distribute any leftover funds (typically 30-40 EUR/month) to unemployed people who help us on a daily basis and, when possible, for our volunteers too!


Of course new immigrants have joined their party. And they are now cooking on some islands such as Mytilini, where the huge number of arrivals is making life hard for everyone.

These are the sites of the organizations mentioned above:

A boat to nowhere

Picture this:

imageThe 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.

imageThis 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.

imageHow 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)

imageEurope, 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.