Updated: Jan 26
Tom has recently arrived back from two months volunteering with refugees at a food distribution NGO in Thessaloniki. He tells us about the experiences he has had working with them and the trials some people face in reaching their end destination.
In 2015, over 856,000 refugees arrived onto the Greek islands of Lesbos, Samos and Evros in cramped, overcrowded boats, the UN Refugee Agency (UNCHR) reported. Tragically, the year saw a succession of migrant boats full of women, children and young men capsize, killing over 3,000 people in the busy Mediterranean Sea crossings- 800 people drowned in a single event after their boat capsized off the coast of Libya. Then the now-famous shocking image of Alan Kurdi, a Turkish man carrying his dead young son on a beach, hit the global headlines and spread awareness about the unravelling crisis. But this single event would not give a loud enough wake-up call to the international community.Many refugees see these sea crossings as their only hope of reaching the Greek mainland and continuing their journey into Europe. While arrivals by land and sea into Europe as a whole declined at a steady rate from 2015 onwards, numbers into Greece in 2020 dropped dramatically from 74,613 in 2019 to just 15,669 in 2020- a year where systematic pushbacks across the border to Turkey continued to mount.
However, the general situation for asylum seekers and refugees who do now reside in Greece and on its islands remains dire. The predominantly Algerian, Moroccan and Afghan communities are continually subjected to interrogations by police officers on the streets, are given little support by the state to seek housing and employment and are routinely refused asylum claims or forced to endure years of agonising wait for the right papers, reports the New Humanitarian.
I spent two months volunteering at a distribution centre in Thessaloniki, northern Greece, giving freshly made food to new arrivals and individuals who have lived on the mainland longer-term. We prepared simple freshly cooked pasta and rice recipes with chickpeas, tomato sauce, aubergines or courgettes and any other donated produce we could find. As we handed out food and cold juice, I heard many stories of pain and suffering from their own countries, on their journey here and having endured in Greece while waiting to get into other European countries. The majority of those we served were young men from Algeria, Morocco and Afghanistan and their constant spirit and character hit me.
A young man called Hameed told me his ordeal of being passed and anger at police brutality against refugees. “The police in Croatia and Bulgaria are so racist towards refugees, they treated me really badly in the detention camps there.” He showed me a deep scar on his left eyebrow, scars on his forearms and a chipped tooth. “I was protesting against the police on the borders but then the police just beat me with batons and whips. This is how I got these injuries. Why do they do this to me? There’s no reason. No reason. The police are so racist in Croatia and Bosnia but why are they like this?”
I asked him where he would like to go in the future. He firmly replied “Italy or Germany. I want to go to Milan, Parma or Bari…I have friends there or somewhere in Germany. These are nice countries. The people are nice to refugees and the police aren’t horrible. I hate it in Greece, I want to move on.” But Hameed isn’t the only refugee who has his eyes set on these two countries. Others I spoke to also said they want to start a new life there.
Source: United Nations
But the process of physically getting into these countries could take a lot longer or be non-existent, owing to a variety of factors. Firstly, many EU countries, including Greece, are intolerant of refugees coming across their borders so many asylum claims are either rejected within days of arriving or visas are never awarded. In fact, roughly two-thirds of asylum applications are rejected in Greece within days of their arrival, after an asylum interview lasting just a few minutes, trapping many in a new cycle of poverty of unemployment, homelessness and no community network to support them.
Secondly, many refugees who reach Greece fall victim to illegal pushbacks from the country’s police force, who are known to deport groups of refugees back to the Turkish border, according to Amnesty International. Greece’s former conservative leader Antonis Samaras has previously described refugees as “illegal immigrants” who are trying to “colonize” Greece- statements which have been echoed from governments across the Balkans. Unfortunately, for as long as this rhetoric and deep-rooted xenophobia by right-wing nationalists continues, the dream for thousands of refugees of starting a positive, new life in Europe will not be fulfilled.
About the Author
Tom has worked at a refugee centre in Derby since 2018, sorting out donations of clothes for refugees in Calais, France and Greece and volunteered at a food distribution centre in Thessaloniki, Greece over summer 2021. He recently graduated with a BA in Journalism at Derby University. In his free time, he enjoys playing tennis, listening to hip hop and RnB music and travelling.