It’s just after nine on an ordinary Thursday night. About 50 people are gathered next to the main entrance of Pedion Tou Areos, the park at the northern limits of central Athens. The weather is now unmistakably cold, but the refugees gathering every night here seem to be increasing in number. It’s a spot where one can buy and sell drugs, or the bodies of underage boys who are stuck in Greece thanks to a recent law change that dictates they must stay here until they come of age.
Both the drugs and the boys are cheap. A few euros for a hit of sisa, a synthetic drug called “the cocaine of the poor”, and a tenner for a session in the park’s bushes with kids as young as 14. The faces change, but the situation remains the same, or worse.
A 14-year-old boy from Afghanistan called Mohammed who was working in the park disappeared over the summer without a trace. He most probably made his way towards the border, to be smuggled out. If he’s lucky he will have made it to northern Europe. If not, he will just be one of thousands who have vanished in the Balkan corridor.
It’s now December and winter is being felt across the country. Storms in October and November flooded parts of Greece, turning the open air camps that still hold thousands of refugees in more than 50 locations into mudpits. A video shared by refugees currently staying in Moria, the camp on the island of Lesvos that sits at the forefront of the Greek refugee crisis, shows a small child crying while walking through the camp’s grounds. Tents provided by the UNHCR and the Greek state are in bad shape. Some have caved in. Floors are under mud and water. “They are trying to turn the island into Greece’s Guantanamo,” said the mayor of Mytilene, the capital of Lesvos, at a press conference.
If you climb up a little hill on the side of the camp, you can get a good view of the compound. A year ago, the refugees had mostly been staying in prefabs, but fires, accidents and overcrowding brought the tents back. The camp that is supposed to hold 800 people is now home to thousands. The whole island, supposedly capable of hosting 2,300 refugees, is instead now home to 7,000 – meanwhile, 17,684 refugees from across Greece have been “voluntarily repatriated” during 2017.
An emergency relief programme is relocating people from Lesvos to camps across Greece, 30 to 50 at a time. But the rest of the camps are in is no better shape. Recently, a nine-year-old boy from Afghanistan tried to commit suicide on Chios, another Greek island. The doctors treating him suspected he had been abused inside the camp. It’s no suprise. Médecins Sans Frontières Greece said that “in our clinic in Lesvos, we have at least ten people per day who have self-harmed or attempted suicide. The situation in the islands is beyond desperate.” Drugs, violence and suicides in the camps make the news often, and NGOs stationed across the country confirm MSF’s statement.
“I can’t guarantee people won’t die from the cold,” said Yiannis Mouzalas, the minister for immigration. Despite the abysmal situation on the islands and in many other camps across Greece, Mouzalas was put forward as a candidate for the equivalent position at the European Commission, currently held by Dimitris Avramopoulos, another Greek politician.
While he didn’t get the promotion he was hoping for, his consideration for the role is indicative of the view currently held by the Greek and EU leadership – that what’s happening here isn’t a failure.
The Islands of the Aegean Sea still serve as landing pads for thousands of refugees crossing from Turkey, where they are supposed to be staying after the EU-Turkey deal and to where they are sometimes returned. The situation there shows that not only is the refugee crisis far from resolved, but the infrastructure designed to cope with it is being pushed to breaking point by a lack of funding and political cynicism.
Mouzalas, who has been in charge of the response since autumn 2015, has received almost unprecedented backing from the Syriza-Independent Greek government and the EU. While NGOs and journalists have repeatedly highlighted the disturbing failures of the system, Mouzalas has hardly faced any scrutiny. Even the recent revelations of slavery, abuse and murder coming out of Libya have done little to change the EU’s view of its handling of the situation.
Last week, the Greek government hosted Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. It was the first visit by a Turkish president in 65 years, and things were tense. Avramopoulos, who was also in Athens at the time, met with Erdogan to discuss the EU-Turkey deal and released a statement, saying: “It’s positive that the EU-Turkey pact is working and we are dedicated to its application, which is already showing positive results.”
But the president of the International Federation for Human Rights, Dimitris Christopoulos, is adamant that both the deal and the plan are not what they seem. In a recent interview he said that the reduction of the flows from Turkey were not necessarily the work of Erdogan, and that he “holds no magic wand”, adding that Greece’s role is to turn itself into a “quarantine zone”.
Back in Athens, the children are out again. A short walk from Exarchia – where a parallel world of solidarity networks exists, with shelters set-up for refugee families in abandoned and shut down public buildings – the EU’s inability to provide something more than a mattress to sleep on or any hope for the future becomes painfully evident in the soliciting that takes place around Pedion tou Areos.
It’ll be Christmas soon, and the municipality has decorated the trees around the fence with lights, a grim spectacle turned grotesque. And as another winter arrives, where nothing has changed, it’s hard to escape the feeling that this is no plan that has gone awry. Rather, it looks increasingly like this is in fact the plan.