International Herald Tribune — Caught between worlds in Europe’s shadow

International Herald Tribune

March 27, 2003

ATHENS Recently I followed from Turkey to Greece some of the men and women who flee conflict and deprivation in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other Muslim countries in search of dignity and safety in the perceived Eden of Europe.

Greece is the point of entry to the continent of their dreams. They pay exorbitant fees to smugglers, brave minefields and mudbanks on Greece’s northern borders, venture across the Aegean Sea in small boats and hide inside trucks in the hope of evading the authorities. In Greece, they discover horrors not imagined by those still crossing the sea and the mountains, or the thousands still waiting in Turkey.

Athens, capital of the nation currently presiding over the European Union, is host to hundreds of Iraqi Kurds, Iranians and Afghans who sleep in parks on cold winter nights; squat in abandoned buildings with no water, electricity or sanitation and go hungry for days, occasionally eating food donated by kind Greeks and nongovernmental organizations. They still dream of moving further into Europe. But the routes are closed by EU migration policies and policed by Greek border guards.

This is the post-Sept. 11 Europe, a Europe unwelcoming to migrants in general and Muslims in particular. Helped financially by the EU and provided with state-of-the-art border control tools, the Greeks are assigned to protect “Fortress Europe” from the migrants by all means necessary. Greece is the gatekeeper of the EU.

Those who do succeed in entering Greece stay in Athens and then move on to Patras, the main exit route to Italy and the scene of some of the most egregious human rights violations toward migrants in Europe. They are brutalized by the border guards, detained in substandard conditions and prevented from leaving Greece.

The Afghans of Patras live in cardboard and plastic kheimeh, the Persian word for tent homes, on empty lots across from the port.

Ahmad lives in a small kheimeh with five others. He escaped Afghanistan at age 7, lived in Iran for two decades and left for Turkey in the hope of finding a country that would accept him as a citizen. Ahmad is stateless. After 20 years, the Iranian authorities regard him as an Afghan. The Afghans consider him an Iranian.

Ahmad paid his life savings to an Afghan smuggler who cheated him and left him penniless in Istanbul. Two years later, he managed to reach Greece. He has no money to pay the Afghan smugglers who could get him into trucks and ships leaving for Italy. He spends his days behind the fence that protects the port from unwelcome intruders and dreams of going north. Ali, a teenage Afghan, showed me his broken arm. Clubbed by border guards when he last tried to get onto a ship to Italy, Ali was hospitalized for a week. His right arm in a cast, he goes to the fence every day, stares at the ships and continues to dream.

I sipped tea with Farshid and six other Iranians in their home in Europe: an abandoned truck covered by thick plastic that leaked rainwater. Full of rage, the men spoke of their humiliation, lack of basic needs and repeated beatings by border guards.

Mohammed, along with 35 other Iranians, lives in a two-story abandoned building. The men use the bathroom in the train station, burn wood on the first floor, boil water and wash in the open every few days. I sat in a room lit by four candles – they have no electricity – and heard tales of disappointment, shame and police brutality.

After 11 failed attempts, Mehran, an Iranian in his mid 20s, is resigned to staying in Patras indefinitely. Deported to Greece by Italian authorities, beaten by border guards, he has lost hope.

There is no returning home for Mehran and many others in Greece. None have told their families of their status and living conditions. “My family thinks I am in Paris,” said a man in his late 20s. “My brother asked me for a pair of sneakers three months ago,” he added, ashamed at not fulfilling his brother’s simple wish. “We will never be normal again,” said a 23-year-old Iranian, walking me to the bus station to leave for Athens.

Welcome to the land of Plato, the Europe of the new millennium.

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