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In September 2002, I traveled to Turkey to follow the men and women from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other Muslim countries in their journey for a better life, a life with dignity and safety on far away lands. Fleeing war and political conflict, and social and economic deprivation, the migrants come to Turkey with a common dream: leaving Turkey for a perceived Eden in Fortress Europe.
Greece is the first entry point to their Dream Land. They pay exuberant fees to smugglers, brave the minefields and mudbanks on Greece’s Northern borders, venture into the turbulent Aegean Sea in small floats, and hide inside sealed trucks with the hope to reach the soil and seek protection from the authorities. Some leave Turkey for Bulgaria. Beaten and assaulted by the Bulgarian border police, attacked by dogs, they return to Turkey, and cross the border, soon after. The survivors reach Sofia, recuperate from the hardships of the journey, and move on to cross snow-covered mountains to Greece. Many die in the journey and never lay foot in their Eden.
I met Kenneth in a refugee camp in Sofia, in late October 2002. A young man from Nigeria, he crossed many borders to reach Turkey, and nearly faced death on his way to Bulgaria. Kind and constantly smiling, he told me of his hopes and dreams, joked, posed before my camera, and walked me to my taxi to protect me from unforeseen risks. Five days later, on the mountains between Bulgaria and Greece, Kenneth’s long journey was aborted. Caught in a storm, and unable to move, he was buried, along with his dreams, under many feet of snow. His friends left him behind to save their own lives. I wept in the historic Acropolis in Athens.
Keneth died. But, many others survived the journey, and made it to Greece. They came to Greece, only to discover new horrors in the European Union, horrors not imagined by the thousands still waiting in Turkey, or those crossing the sea and the mountains.
Athens, the capital of the nation presiding over the European Union, is host to hundreds of Iraqi Kurds, Iranians, and Afghans who sleep in parks in cold winter nights; squad abandoned buildings with no water, electricity, and toilet; and spend days in hunger, occasionally eating bread and other food donated by kind Greeks and the NGOs. They still dream to “move forward,” to reach further north in Europe. But, moving forward is not possible for many. The routes are closed by the EU migration policy, and the Greek coastguards, or “commandos,” as called by the migrants.
This is the post-September 11 Europe, a Europe unwelcoming to migrants in general, and Muslims in particular. Helped financially by the EU, and provided by the 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. But, despite the tight border control in land and sea, many succeed to enter Greece. The Pakistani migrants remain in Athens, live on the margins of the society, and survive in poverty. The Iranians, Iraqi Kurds, and the Afghans leave Athens for the port Patras, the main exit route to Italy, and the scene of some of the most egregious human rights violations towards the migrants in Europe. They are brutalized by the commandos, detained in extremely sub-standard conditions, and prevented from leaving Greece.
The Afghans of Patras live in Kheimeh, the Farsi word for tent, “homes” made of cardboard and plastic on empty lots across from the harbor. Ahmad lives in a small kheimeh with five others. He escaped Afghanistan at age seven, lived in Iran for two decades, and left for Turkey in the hope of finding a home that would finally accept him as a citizen. Ahmad is stateless. After 20 years, the Iranian authorities regard him an Afghan. The Afghans consider him an Iranian. He paid all his life savings to an Afghan smuggler who cheated him, and left him penniless in Istanbul. Two years later, Ahmad managed to reach Greece. He has no money to pay the Afghan smugglers to allow him to jump the trucks and the ships leaving for Italy. He spends his days behind the fence-the thick iron bars protecting the harbor from unwelcome intruders-and dreams of a day he can be on the other side, in a ship going north.
The fence is guarded by the commandos, and controlled by smugglers from Afghanistan and Iraq. There are seven gates to the fence. The Kurdish smugglers control four gates. The Afghans have two. There is one free gate, where the commandos have their office. Except for the impoverished Iranians, no one dares escaping from that gate.
The smugglers exhort money from anyone wishing to leave for Italy. No one can escape without paying off the appropriate smugglers. “We have shed our blood for this. You have to pay your dues,” a Kurdish smuggler said to an Iranian. But, paying the dues is no guarantee for reaching Italy safely. This is a fee for access to the harbor. There, the voyagers are still in the mercy of the commandos.
Standing behind the fence by Gate One, Ali, a teenage Afghan, showed me his broken arm. Clubbed nearly to death by the commandos 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 everyday, stares at the ships, and continues to dream. An older Afghan, showed me his missing tooth. He too was clubbed, struck on the face, many times, by the commandos.
The Iranians in Patras do not have a zone of their own, or their own national smugglers. Those with money use the “service” of the Afghans and the Kurds, and those without money, use most creative ways to “take the ships.” Their stories echo the tales of hunger and violence experienced by the Afghans and the others in Patras.
I sipped tea with Farshid and six other Iranians in their home in Europe: an abandoned truck covered by thick plastic, large wholes on corners, leaking rainwater. Full of rage, the men lamented about their humiliation, lack of most basic needs, and repeated beating by the commandos. A political refugee, Farshid was deceived by the Greek authorities upon entry into the country. Told to file as an economic migrant, he was robbed of the possibility of being recognized as a refugee, receiving protection in Europe.
Mohammad, 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. No electricity, I sat in a room lit by four candles, and heard tales of disappointment, shame, and police brutality. I photographed the bruises on Hamid’s body. Arrested and punished after a failed attempt to leave for Italy, he had howled, and cried for mercy for an hour, witnesses told me.
After 11 failed attempts, Mehran, an Iranian in his mid twenties, is resigned to stay in Patras indefinitely. Deported to Greece by Italian authorities, beaten by the commandos, he has lost hope. He is too scared to approach the fence. There is no returning home for Mehran and many others in Greece. They are trapped. None have told their families of their status and living conditions. “My son lives in Europe,” their parents boast to neighbors and relatives. “My family thinks I am in Paris,” said a man in his late twenties. “My brother asked me for a pair of sneakers three months ago,” he continued, feeling ashamed for not fulfilling his brother’s simple wish. “We will never be normal again,” said the 23-year-old Iranian, walking me to the bus station to leave for Athens.
Welcome to the land of Plato, Europe in the new Millennium
BEHZAD YAGHMAIAN is an international political economists and the author of Social Change in Iran: An Eyewitness Account of Dissent, Defiance, and New Movements for Rights (SUNY Press, 2002). He is currently in the Middle East researching for his upcoming book, Embracing the Infidel: The Secret World of the Muslim Migrant (Verso Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.