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Dublin: 12°C Monday 14 June 2021

Inside the refugee camp where thousands are holding out for a better life

Over 50,000 people are stranded in Greece after EU states shut their borders to refugees. Julien Mercille meets some of those looking for a way out.

Julien Mercille

GREECE HAS BECOME Europe’s largest refugee camp, where an estimated 54,000 people remain stranded in very difficult conditions following the closure of the Balkan migrant route. While in the country recently, I decided to visit a makeshift camp at the port of Piraeus in Athens, which holds some 4,000 refugees, stuck there now for weeks.

The first thing you see when you get there are the hundreds of tents in which they live and sleep. The port terminal looks like a giant camping ground. It is on the waterfront, facing the huge ferries that shuttle in and out of the port to the Greek islands.

I meet a refugee in his late 30s called Bashir, a former Syrian government employee in the Department of Agriculture, who is here with his wife, a teacher, and their one-year-old baby.

Many refugees were quite comfortable in their countries but were forced to leave due to war. Bashir fled the fighting between Isis and Syrian government forces two months ago.

He takes me for a walk around the camp. I want to know how it works logistically – how food, sanitation, healthcare and everyday life are organised.

He explains to me that there are Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans in the camp. I ask about the reports of tensions between the three but he downplays that.

Yes, there have been some small events but we are fine now … We have to get along because if not, the camp will not work.

The impressive thing is how everything is run by volunteers. There are two big refrigerated containers to store food and another one full of water bottles.

Nearby is the clinic where volunteer Greek doctors see refugees who need care. Then there’s a Dutch group that playing with kids and brings them small toys.

I wonder if this is another case of white people helping poor people to feel good about themselves, but it doesn’t seem to be. Volunteers are just too busy doing what needs to be done to keep the camp viable.

The refugees seem to appreciate the help and the children don’t need to be convinced to go play with the Dutch. They even queue up instantaneously when the skipping rope comes out of the bag.

1379d87a-ba35-4998-bc41-84706a87d479 Source: Julien Mercille

Three showers and five toilets

“The governments do nothing for us, just the volunteers, they do everything,” Bashir says.

What about the UN?

“The UN does not do enough, just some blankets some time ago.”

What about the EU agencies in charge of refugees?

“Haha! No! They came, but we don’t know what is going on, we just wait.”

I ask him about basics like showers and toilets. “Not good—just three showers and five toilets each for men and women.”

I ask him where he wants to go once he is allowed to leave Greece.

“I want to go to Germany or Sweden, or something like that.”

What about the UK?

“No, UK very bad. Very bad government. And I don’t understand it when British people talk.”

I can sense he might feel at home in Ireland.

“So what about Ireland, Bashir? Our government says our economy is recovering at lightning speed and our developers will shortly solve all our housing problems.

Plus, our public sector salaries are so high, you’d get a good job in the Department of Agriculture.”

He can see I’m joking and says with a cheeky smile, “Ireland? Yes, maybe, I can visit you once I’m in Sweden.”

He tells me that Ireland has not accepted many refugees so far. Only 10 actually, under the EU’s plan promising to take 160,000 refugees from Greece and Italy. Even the Pope has beaten us, when he brought back 12 refugees from Greece to the Vatican last week.

Bashir then brings me inside a port building where families are sleeping on the ground. He tells me to be careful with pictures here, so as not to give the impression that I’m here to marvel at people’s misery.

Things are surprisingly orderly in the building. It’s peaceful and although no one would like to be stranded for months here, nobody seems to be agonising either. People have simply made it work for the time being.

I take my camera out discreetly to capture the scene. Who knows, maybe our government will somehow be convinced to accept two or three more families from the port – and beat the Pope.

Julien Mercille is a lecturer at University College Dublin specialising in Geopolitics. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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