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The State of Europe’s Soul: a Refugee Camp in Piraeus, Greece

Two Afghani refugees at the Piraeus camp

Two Afghani refugees at the Piraeus camp. Photo: Stan Hister.

While I was in Athens last week I met up with an activist friend on a blazingly hot Saturday morning to go out to a refugee camp in the port of Piraeus.

There’s a bus you can get from near the metro station that takes you around the dock area. Most of the people on it were catching ferries to various islands. We got let off in what seemed like the middle of nowhere: warehouses and a big empty container parking lot. Off in the distance were storage sheds. That’s where we were heading. The storage in this case was human.

Greece has 57,000 refugees. Pretty much all of them came here to get somewhere else – El Dorados like Germany, the Netherlands, Scandinavia. Greece was only supposed to be a stepping stone. But since March the powers-that-be in the European Union brought everything to a standstill. The new policy was Fortress Europe, a continental version of a medieval citadel. No more new migrants would be let in, no more refuge would be granted desperate people fleeing the living hell of places like Syria, Iraq, Libya or Afghanistan. And if you were already on a stepping stone like Greece, you were now stuck on that stone.

When we got to the sheds, the place was full of hundreds of camping tents. They seemed to have sprouted like mushrooms in the dank darkness. There was no space between them and only a couple of corridors left for moving about. I saw one place for washing up. Toilets were 30 port-o-lets, all lined up outside like a phalanx of robocops.

You could tell at once that the set-up was about keeping costs to a minimum and sending a not-so-subtle ‘get lost’ message. There was a sad irony to those tents in their pastel shades of blue, green and orange. To a North American mind, they are associated with green grass, open skies, the great outdoors – not cave-like concrete bleakness.

There are about 1500 people in this camp. Those inside the sheds are among the luckier ones, since a few hundred refugees are stuck across some train tracks, pitching their tents under a highway overpass.

Security was surprisingly lax. My friend expected we’d be stopped and questioned but nobody official seemed to be around, maybe because there isn’t much need for security. The chains in a place like this are mostly invisible: if you tried escaping you wouldn’t get far without money or papers, and once you’re caught you’d be deported and lose the one slim hope you have left for a decent life.

I spoke to some of the camp residents. Most were Afghani, men in their late teens or early twenties, the kind of people – single/Muslim/male – Western governments are especially leery of as potential security threats. They’d been stuck in Piraeus for five or six months now. And also stuck in an impossible predicament.

Samim is a 23-year-old policeman from Parwan, a town 60 km from Kabul. The Taliban have threatened to kill him, which is why he fled Afghanistan. Amir, a 17-year-old student from the same town, has a similar story. They want to get as far away from the Taliban or Daesh as possible, and yet in the West they’re treated as possible terrorists themselves. They can’t work or travel. According to a father of two, a tailor, there’s no school for the kids. Medical care seems haphazard, and what there is comes from volunteer activists like the group my friend is involved with.

Everyone in the camp wants the borders opened but it’s clear this won’t happen. While I was in Athens a European official gave a press conference calling on the Greek government to integrate the refugees as permanent residents. That too seems implausible given the strangulated state of Greece’s economy. The government’s only plan is to move the Piraeus camp to another location, no doubt to make it more out of sight, out of mind. Meanwhile, frustration at other camps has boiled over into rioting.

As I was leaving I noticed that a big cruise ship was coming in to dock on the other side of the port. It was called the Celebrity Equinox and it gleamed in the sun with all the allure of luxury and the good life. Fifteen hundred dollars will get you seven days on board and amenities fit for a king: a spa, gastro bar, endless frozen cocktails, a lawn club, observation lounge, six different restaurants and much more. Meanwhile, some of the kids from the camp stood on the wharf and looked out at this vision of paradise floating by. Right there you have a telling image of the state of Europe’s soul in the summer of 2016.

Stan Hister is a socialist activist, writer and photographer living in Toronto.

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