Solidarity, squats and self-management assisting migrants in Greece

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Human rightsGreeceMigrationRefugees

In the inner courtyard of the Dervenion squat, Samir prepares a salad in a giant bowl, whilst an Iranian transvestite chef adeptly fries potato cakes.

At the entrance to this collective space in the Exarcheia district, Afghan and African women root through boxes of clothes sorted by volunteers from Greece and elsewhere. The volunteers are gathered on the floor above, for a weekly meeting, where they weigh up the challenges to be met in the various squats opened up for migrants and refugees who have ended up in Athens.

There are over 500 of them living in these self-managed spaces relying on horizontal cooperation to run smoothly.

Samir, a former business management student from Damascus, prepares the lunch for a good third of them: "Every day, volunteers prepare three meals a day for those living in the Themistokleous, the university and the Notara squats," explains the 24-year-old Syrian, freshly arrived from the island of Lesbos.

Samir fled Syria, ravaged by five years of war, to reach a European country where he could start a new life in safety. But with the closure of the Balkan Route at the end of February, he has become one of 50,000 migrants and refugees blocked in Greece, according to the estimates of the Greek government.

It is a country with a labour market at half-mast, an out-dated asylum system, and a total reception capacity of 36,910 migrants and asylum seekers, according to the UNHCR.

In short, it is "a warehouse of souls", in the words of the Greek Migration Policy Minister, Yannis Mouzalas. By opening squats for them, members of the Greek solidarity movement have become the helping hands in this warehouse with cracked walls, at the same time as denouncing Greece’s migration policy. Because the majority of the migrants and refugees are left to live in degrading conditions.

Six thousand have been amassed in the disused Ellinikon airport on the outskirts of Athens, and 4500 on the burning asphalt of the port of Piraeus, whilst over 10,000 are living under canvas in Idomeni, a village on the border with Macedonia.

And since the agreement signed between the EU and Turkey on 20 March, several thousand have been locked up in detention camps on the islands of Lesbos and Chios, and live in fear of being sent to Turkey.

Being an asylum seeker no longer offers protection against forced deportation, as discovered by human rights organisations, which are also denouncing the detention of men, women and children who have fled from war and persecution.


Greek impasse

Watching the trams running along the coast from Ellinikon, Hasib wonders if the borders will reopen one day: "I know the Greek economy is in crisis and I don’t want to stay here under these conditions. But going back to Afghanistan would mean signing my own death sentence," says the 24-year-old engineer from Kabul, threatened by the Taliban.

He has been sleeping alongside 2000 Afghans on the floor of this disused airport for a month. There is a lack of air, a lack of hygiene and a lack of food too. No more than ten showers have just been installed, and, at night, the children cry of hunger.

But Hasib’s dreams of elsewhere have been thwarted, due to his nationality, excluded from the EU relocation programme implemented by the European Asylum Support Office (EASO). For him, the only option remaining is to apply for asylum in Greece, which has to be done firstly by Skype.

The lack of electricity at Ellinikon makes this an impossible task. Paying a trafficker is not an option for him either, having spent all the money he had to make it to Greece. Faced with a dead end, he takes part in all the demonstrations calling for the opening of borders and respect for asylum seekers’ rights in Greece.

These protest are on the menu of the discussions at the Dervenion meeting. On 10 April in Idomeni, migrants who had reached breaking point tried to the ram their way through the barbed-wire fence protecting the Greek-Macedonian border. The Macedonian police responded with tear gas. Two hundred and sixty migrants were injured, including women and children, according to MSF.

"In Idomeni, the solidarity movement is only involved in humanitarian work, but migrants also need political support to defend their rights. We need to help them to coordinate their fight, from Idomeni to Chios, passing through Athens," says one of them.

By encouraging the migrants and refugees to live in the self-managed squats opened to welcome them, Greek solidarity activists are trying to marry humanitarian support with political activism. It is a stance little appreciated by the Greek police, which detained several of them in Idomeni, based on abusive allegations according to a group of volunteers.

Sat in the common room of the Notara squat in the Exarcheia district, Mohammad and Tarek rejoice: "Here, we are free. We decide on common matters together. It’s better than being locked up in military camps," say the two Palestinians who fled Lebanon, making reference to the makeshift camps erected by the Greek army to reduce the overflow in the port of Piraeus and Idomeni.

Not far from Notara, a group of Greek volunteers have opened a squat in a former school. Three hundred Syrians and Afghans are occupying the classrooms converted into dorms. The school playground is filled with the laughter of children playing basketball.

Abir, who used to teach at Yarmouk, the Palestinian camp in Damascus bombarded by the Syrian regime, gives literacy classes to the exiled women. The volunteers organise the cleaning and cooking shifts and come to give Greek and English classes.

But Khristo, who pioneered the opening of the squat, remains sceptical: "The assembly is not participatory and an NGO has penetrated the squat, which is turning into a hotspot," regrets the Greek, committed to the principles of self-management.

He fears that if the state lays its hands on the reception centre, it could end with the asylum seekers being deported to Turkey, or even their country of origin.

In any event, the Greek warehouse is not about to close. In the school playground, Zaher, father of a family from Homs, has just received a negative response from the EASO to his relocation demand. His nine-month pregnant wife stands beside him as he reads it.

Their neighbours are still waiting for a response, a month after submitting their application to go to another European country.

To date, only 1145 refugees have been relocated from Greece and Italy to another EU state, out of the 160,000 scheduled to be moved between September 2015 and September 2017.


This story has been translated from French.