Hellinikon Stadium was the official field hockey venue during the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. Today it’s home – or prison – to some 2000 refugees living in slum-like conditions, conditions, which, however lamentable, typify most refugee camps in Greece. Its history – and current form – lays bare the moral minefield that threatens the very integrity of modern Europe.
An exalted chorus of cries unfurls from the stands of the Hellinikon Olympic hockey stadium onto the pitch. Afghanistan has knit a thick and unassailable web of passing that leaves Iran staggering, stunned, and one goal behind in today’s football match. The crowd’s enthusiasm may hint at something akin to contentment, but these sounds belie an altogether graver reality. For while players and supporters alike come from a host of different nations, no one flew economy, business, or first class to get here. They took the long road from the most baleful of circumstances, weaving their way on trucks, boats, dinghies, and on foot to be shoehorned in Hellinikon stadium until some cadre of EU technocrats decide their fate, their course in life. The thousands in attendance today – whose drying clothes and tents adorn the stands – are the indefinite prisoners of the stadium and Fortress Europe.
Twelve years ago the stadium – and the surrounding Hellinikon Olympic Complex – was ground zero for another reality: the 2004 summer Olympic games. The $7 billion series of Olympic complexes now stand in ruins, forlorn reminders of Greece’s last gilded era. The scene today bears more similarities to Santiago National Stadium after Pinochet’s 1973 coup than to anything Olympic.
And yet it seems fitting – in a completely deranged way – that this former Olympic stadium now tabernacles a few thousand of the 54,142 desperate refugees corralled within Greece’s borders, a country that the EU has effectively transformed into a colossal prison camp. This is the current plight of Europe. Those ideals – equality, democracy, inclusiveness, and the steadfast championing of human rights and international law – that once lent Europe and the EU a sort of cultural and moral superiority over much of the world, are quickly becoming shibboleths; they have been replaced instead by a stifling tikki-takka-like nexus of closed borders, right-wing politics, and an arcane and illegitimate EU-Turkey deal that jeopardizes whatever credibility Europe has left. The only exit for fans and players alike from this stadium will likely be in the custody of Frontex officials en route to Turkey. And once in Turkey, well, no one really knows.
I am at the stadium with Amadeus, a Greek friend employed by a local NGO that works directly with refugees. Access to the stadium is restricted; we got here only after slinking into the old abandoned Elliniko airport – another refugee camp that abuts the stadium – and crawling under a chain link fence separating the two camps.
On the sidelines we meet Jones, a 9-year-old Afghani kid who speaks an impressively high-degree of English. He feeds us commentator-like details about some of the standout Afghani football players – also refugees.
“Him in the white shirt, he is good. He play in Europe, he plays national team. And him in blue, also Europe,” says Jones.
Moments later the two players engage in a quick one-two on the wing, beating numerous defenders, before white shirt receives the ball and canons a shot over the hockey goal; it is the same goal that – in the 78th minute of the men’s finals in 2004 and in front of thousands of international fans – field hockey legend Jamie Dwyer put in Australia’s second point of the evening against the Netherlands, enough to take gold on a 2-1 result.
The missed shot signals the end of today’s match, Afghanistan having toppled Iran 3-2. Before we have time to verify whether Jones’ scoop on these Afghani superstars is bona fide or not, the players march to the side of the pitch and begin the evening prayer as the orange sky fades to night.
“My family meets you. Come and meet my family,” implores Jones, herding us towards the inside of the stadium.
Every little nook of the stadium – players’ benches, training rooms, hallways, and offices – has become the home of someone or some family. Those box suites which once offered sumptuous smorgasbords of shrimp, steak, and champagne now offer a less ornate kind of luxury, but under these conditions, a luxury nonetheless: a balcony, fresh air, and a view to the North – something that can’t be said for the living arrangements for everyone else in the stadium.
Walking through the players’ tunnel we pass a snaking procession of tents and beds strewn along the concrete passageway. As unthinkable as it might seem, these tented ones are still lucky. When the summer heat in Athens hits the 90 mark and boils over, those with tents have the option to move outside.
Jones leads us up a few flights of stairs and into a huge corridor that lays bare a much harsher reality: an Olympic form of shanty-living that surpasses even the most woebegone areas of Dhaka or Mexico City. Long, tight, bazaar-like passageways are girded on either side by sheeted partitions held up by a medley of branches and crates, delineating the homes of thousands of refugees. Each partition and sheeted wall opens up in a kind of Russian Doll-like way to a checkerboard of more divisions and open homes. Bodies are strewn about on the ground, old and young; some are sleeping, some talking, and some just lolling, listless and crestfallen – there is too much time to think here. But it is the smell that is most unsettling – that miasma of human overcrowding so redolent of slum living.
And while it might be easy to point fingers at Greece, excoriating them for the prison-like refugee camps across the country, it is ultimately the reluctance and political fickleness of the EU as a whole that is really to blame. The 2008 economic crisis combined with a series of Troika-imposed austerity measures – or what Yanis Varoufakis refers to as a “ponzi austerity” scheme – has severely limited the capacity of the Greek state, and as a consequence, its ability to deal with such a prodigious human rights dilemma. This is something that has been readily acknowledged by the EU since 2008.
Yet the EU – which is more than capable both institutionally and economically to take in the 55,000 refugees in Greece and has promised to do so – continues to demonstrate its unwillingness. Only 614 refugees – out of a total of 66,400 to be relocated within Europe – have been moved. Furthermore, the Troika is about to subjugate Greece to another round of austerity measures, the most draconian ones yet. How these measures intend to ameliorate the economic and refugee situation in Greece is far from clear. For many, they will do the opposite.
Jones lifts up a sheet and invites us in. We take off our shoes, duck under the sheet, and sit on a blanket – Jones’ home, as well as the home of two other families. His little brother lies asleep on the ground, his face sallow from sickness or exhaustion, or maybe a little of both. Inside, amidst this chaos, the family sits stoically and dignified. Their belongings are ordered, their house is clean – as clean as it can be – and they graciously offer us what few juice boxes and packets of cookies they have; what few amenities they received from the camp.
We politely refuse. They insist. We politely refuse again. We appreciate the offer, we explain, but this is for you. Talk drifts to needs. Clothes, soap, milk and food for the kids, and a tent so they can move outside, out of the heat, out of the chaos and misery inside. They don’t have access to any of this. Jones’ mother is the family spokesperson, speaking for both kids and husband. She speaks and Jones translates as best he can.
“All we need is a job for my husband, any kind of job. Then we can make it, we can stay in Greece,” she says solemnly. They don’t seem to know anything about the asylum procedure, something that becomes all too clear when Jones chimes in.
“I want to play football for Greece. Is this possible? Can I play for the Greek team?” There is still innocence, still that childhood hopefulness that has remained steadfast and unperturbed despite the odds, despite everything around him, despite what he has already seen and endured to get here. His obliviousness to the odds he is up against is both beautiful and heartbreaking.
“You have to be a citizen of Greece to play for the national team,” responds Amadeus. “Have you applied for asylum in Greece? If you want to stay here it is important that you apply. ”
Jones translates this to his mother and father. They talk amongst each other and then respond to Jones who answers us. He shakes his head from side to side.
It’s unclear whether Jones knows what asylum is in English. What information made it to his parents through Jones’ translation is even murkier. Amadeus asks again to be sure. Again the same uncertain answer. The uncertainty is all the more unsettling against the backdrop of the EU-Turkey deal, its implications for this family, as well as for most refugees currently ensnared in Greece.
Having come only a month ago the only chance Jones and his family have to stay in Europe is to apply for asylum in Greece. Otherwise they will likely be deported to Turkey, where their status and protection is at the best precarious. Turkey has – among various other human rights and international law violations – already been accused of shooting Syrians on the border trying to cross into the country. Ironically Syrians are the one refugee population in Turkey that is ostensibly guaranteed full legal protection.
Afghanis and Iraqis, who also make up a large portion of European-bound refugees, are considered second-class asylum-seekers within this newfangled EU refugee caste system. In Turkey their cases are rarely processed, and various organizations fear that they will be repatriated against their will and against the non-refoulment clause enshrined within the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees as well as the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. The EU was privy to this contravention before signing the accord. Nonetheless, by signing the accord the EU has attempted to shirk all responsibility of what happens to refugees once in Turkey. What happens in Turkey stays in Turkey.
And while Greece is, for now, still part of the EU, the situation there is hardly better. Asylum claims for refugees in Greece have been freighted with illegitimacy. Afghanis, despite extended war and constant persecution by the Taliban, are often considered economic migrants or irregular immigrants, a title that disbars them from applying for asylum. The induction of a mandatory Skype-based asylum claim service – which has been dubbed “near impossible to access” – only thwarts progress and adds to the overall frustration.
That refugees at Hellinikon stadium even know about the asylum process may be already assuming too much. Myriad conversations with refugees at the stadium – including Jones’ family – and across Greece have revealed that they receive little to no information regarding the asylum process or how the new rules relating to the EU-Turkey deal have tweaked their status and the likelihood of them staying in Greece and the EU.
We thanked Jones’ family for their hospitality and wished them the best of luck. We said that we would try to come back, but given how restricted access is to Elliniko, the possibility was slim.
We passed back under the sheet to a great procession of bodies weltering through the souk-like passageway. A man, mistaking us for camp employees, detained us and led us to an electric closet. Inside, around thirty Afghani girls were seated studying English. The English teacher – a twenty something Afghani girl – exited and began to elaborate on the conditions of the camp.
“There is no space anywhere. This isn’t safe for us. I have to teach in an electric closet. I cannot teach in here. Look, I am using a map of the stadium I found to teach English because we don’t have paper. There are hundreds of kids here who need school, who have been here for months, but we don’t get help. We have no classrooms, no books, no pens, and the coordinator said she won’t do anything.”
(Days later we interviewed the camp coordinator, informing her that we had already talked to many refugees, all of whom had decried the camp conditions. She has this to say: “We are working together with the migrants and everyone here is happy. Everyone here is fine.”)
We nod our heads in understanding.
“Kids don’t get enough food. There is no soap, no shampoo. We don’t have clothes. There is no milk for the young ones and we don’t have money so we can’t buy anything else. How are we supposed to survive in here?”
“I am sorry but we don’t work here. We can’t do anything about this,” says Amadeus, not wanting make any bogus promises.
“We will try to get some books for you,” I chime in, caught up in the direness of the conditions. Amadeus has already anticipated the scene – what happens in situations of acute human desperation when you are perceived, erroneously or not, as a source of help. We have become a kind of outlet for their collective frustration, contacts that might be able to help, and they take the opportunity to show us the deprivation that abounds within.
A woman overhearing the conversation snatches us and shows us another “classroom” – a slight cavity along the sheeted alley.
“This is all the space we have to teach hundreds of kids.” She leads us to one of the lone tents parked at the end of the corridor. A woman sits crumpled and frail inside the tent, her face a wizened patchwork of life long gone.
“This is my mother. She was in the hospital before we came here. She needs help, to see a doctor. They give her only aspirin here. She cannot stay here like this.”
Amadeus signals for us to get out of here. More and more people are gathering around. Things are quickly spiraling out of control. There is nothing, unfortunately, that we can do to amend the conditions here. There are too many people, too many problems. We cannot provide legal counsel to all these people, give their kids the education promised by various international conventions, or put a stop to the alleged rings of child prostitution within the adjacent Elliniko airport. This form of human suffering isn’t a singular reality; this is the norm for refugees across Greece.
An old man dodders up to us and shows us a medical prescription in Greek. He is unable to read its contents, unsure of where to go, and incapable of paying the fee. We try desperately to explain to everyone around us that we can’t do anything. We don’t work here. We don’t have the means to provide all these services.
The same man that first showed us the electric closet classroom, points for us to follow him and we trudge back down the corridor.
“I show you another school.”
Amadeus breaks in before we go any further.
“I’m sorry but we can’t do anything about this. We can try to get some books, some supplies maybe, but that is all. We can’t promise you anything. I am truly sorry.”
We say goodbye. He thanks us. We haven’t done anything, maybe just instilled a false sense of hope where there isn’t much left. We scurry down the stairs into the stadium’s entrance foyer, past abandoned vending machines and food counters from the stadium’s Olympic days, and out through the entrance.
Back at Elliniko airport, we find Amadeus’ car and hop in. We weave our way past a cluster of refugee tents towards the exit. As we pull out of the airport onto the highway a white Lamborghini jets past, reminding us of an altogether different reality, but one that is soon scheduled to overtake the area. As part of the latest series of Troika-imposed austerity measures, the former airport and surrounding complexes have been sold off to private interests.
The consequent plan, which is mired in questions of illegality, aims to turn the area into a glittery mishmash of luxury apartment complexes and shopping malls to be enjoyed by Greece’s gentry. The quicker these refugees can be moved elsewhere – generally to camps where conditions aren’t “fit for animals” – the faster they can develop this gilded paradise.
From the highway we take one last glance at the stadium. Set alight in lurid fluorescence, it rebels against the night, a fata morgana of its former Olympic glory. This is modern Europe: a colossal chimera. From bastion of human rights and international law to bulwark of intolerance and shortsightedness, onwards, or backwards, we go.