Athens represents the first arrival city in many refugees’ European journey and estimates show that it hosts half of the approximately 60,000 newcomers stranded in Greece since 2015. Athens is the most contradictory city of all three in this study: a European destination but also a city of compounded crises, it reflects the contradictions of neoliberal Europe.
ATHENS: A DESTINATION OR THE PERPETUATION OF PRECARITY?
Athens as a city of refuge is constituted through the temporariness of everything. Structures and provisions of reception and rights are characterised by temporariness, with the state taking years to process asylum and family reunification cases and with prospects of permanent residency and employment being almost non-existent. Temporariness drives the imagination of newcomers too, as almost everyone we encountered perceives Athens as a stopover in an incomplete journey, with a desired destination in Northern Europe.
There is a paradox in these experiences and imaginaries of temporariness, which have transformed urban life into a perpetual space and time of suspension: more and more newcomers have come to realise that Europe has sealed its internal borders, that red tape has become a way to control migration through bureaucratisation and that Greece, as a country experiencing a crisis within a crisis, has become an inevitable, even if unrecognised, destination. Such practices of governance have elsewhere been identified as “a politics of waiting” (Joronen 2017); that is, rights are in principle recognised but in practice not activated. In Athens, the state’s inaction is, in fact, the enactment of EU policies, and this plays out in two ways: first, it is EU policy that is driving the containment of migrants in Greece and the deterrence of their mobility to the north (such inaction means that migrants are neither here to stay nor do they know if they will go); second, Greece’s punitive austerity programme is also imposed by the EU (this leads to a different kind of inaction, a contraction of the state from the protection of rights and the provision of services).
I never wanted to come here. I wanted to cross Greece and go somewhere else, but the borders were all closed. But now Athens is my place. There is no other city like Athens, everything starts here. When I'm abroad I miss it. Athens, everything starts here.. We have lived together as part of the Ottoman Empire so we have many things in common… culture, food. It can be psychological but I don’t feel like a foreigner. Greeks are friendlier than other Europeans. Especially as a single woman, I feel Greece is a safe country. I have slept on the street and no one has ever bothered me. It’s also easier to live in Athens with little money.
Our asylum claim has already been accepted but we’ve been waiting for our papers and our ID cards for a long time. They release papers for one family per week maybe, it’s ridiculous. With at least 70,000 refugees here, it will take decades to clear through. We can’t receive the medical treatment we need here, and we can’t move on to another place. They just have us trapped. And even at the Department for Immigration you are told, ‘if you don’t like it, why are you here?’ How do you go back to your country if it’s ravaged by war? I have no house there, not anymore. My family there is in a camp because our houses were burnt down to ash. I wouldn’t have come here if I had a choice. Why would I put my family through so much danger, crossing the sea, if there was a choice?
(Tareq Family, hostility)
Athens is a difficult place. It’s where all the refugees deported from all the other European countries are returned, all the unwanted people. There are people from Afghanistan, Palestine, Syria. And you really have to be careful about the company you keep. There are drugs, prostitution and theft. Greece is like a prison. You get stuck here.
The founders, Laura and Ester, drove this van to Athens from London but they aren’t based in Greece anymore. Varvara and I do the day-to-day management and coordination. There is definitely the sense of an international presence in Athens, of international volunteers that are not connected to the city. I think it can be damaging to come here for a short time, to do work and then leave. For those that can't leave, it’s a reminder of just that. For Greeks, there is a feeling that people come here and only see the refugee crisis, that they don’t see the Greek crisis, engage with or show respect to Greeks.
(Megan & Varvara, hospitality)
A huge problem is bureaucracy. There is no consistency when it comes to UNHCR requests and what they ask us to report each time. You have to frequently change some indicators and include new ones depending on the needs. Initially, the criterion was that you were a single-parent family. Since August 2018, the definition of vulnerability has changed and it’s now defined around health issues. When there are 5000 people waiting to be accommodated, being a single parent is no longer a strong criterion. There are currently 12 families staying here and they all suffer from psychological disorders and serious health issues. On Tuesday, we are expecting a family with a blind mother.
CRISIS WITHIN A CRISIS
Lack of clarity on the future perpetuates migrant precarity and despair and fuels xenophobia against the “strangers” who are present in the city but not settled. Within a regime of inactivity and uncertainty, new solidarities and forms of action have emerged. In fact, Athens, more than Berlin and London, is a city of both despair and freedom. Athens’ disordered spaces and a-legality driving many migrants’ everyday life means that rules of containment are constantly challenged. For example, temporary and informal housing, such as in the case of squats organised by anarchist and radical Left groups, offered migrants some security when they initially arrived; illegal markets in the city’s underbelly compensate for the lack of any other prospects for income; and networks of solidarity provide for what the state does not offer, including anything from Internet connection to legal aid, health provisions and hot food to the large numbers of migrants that are homeless and living on the streets.
We’re thinking that we need to discuss the concept of ‘manhood’ as part of talking about gender violence. A lot of the men here had to be the supporters and providers of their household, the ‘man of the house,’ and they come here all alone with the plan of establishing themselves and bringing their families to join them as soon as they can but there’s no money here. A guy I was speaking to explained it like this, ‘where I come from we all belong to a tribe, and when you come here, you need to find a tribe.’ And the tribes they find here are most often dangerous drug dealers because there is no way to make money here, there are no jobs, especially if you don’t have the right papers. So people end up falling into this sort of thing. I think it's important to try to take them out of that and ask, ‘what does it really mean to be a man? What did it mean to you growing up? What does it mean now?’
The majority of kids in the school now come from Eleonas camp* through the IOM [International Organisation for Migration]. They bring the kids in four busses and about 70 to 80 come steadily. Many more students are enrolled but some of them have already left Greece or they had to leave the camp. This year we were so happy because there were so many kids that came. The government keeps talking about closing Eleonas, which is practically the only urban camp in Athens, so we have to see what’s going to happen. Do the kids stay here, do they go? There is so much instability of movement, of status issues, of what’s happening with the camp itself. And the aftermath of all this, in many ways, is on us too, right? So, it's super stretchy.
* Government-run refugee camp in Athens
Refugees here are like survivors. There is no financial support for them. In recent years, I felt Greek people started looking at me in a negative way. A lot of people are coming and the economic crisis has changed people’s psychology. You need a job, but there are no jobs. Two years ago, me and my friend Aynour decided to set up this stall and started selling this vegetarian Turkish kefte, 'tsig kefte', but with a 'secret' recipe! In the summer it’s difficult because it’s so hot, but I’m happy with my job. Maybe I cannot earn a lot of money, but I can make my own plans and I can do other things when I want to because it’s my own business.
There are many Mobile Schools around across Europe, Africa and Asia. The organisation offers support, training and material pro-bono to organisations that can prove there is a target population of children who aren’t attending school. We initially worked with Roma children but because of the refugee crisis, we have adapted the program to the needs of refugees.
Mobile School’s only request is that we send reports in order for them to analyze and compare their actions around the world. In 2017, our Greek project met 1439 children on the street, 75% of whom were under 12 years old and mainly from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Kurdistan, Turkey and Pakistan.
ATHENS AS DIGITAL CITY OF REFUGE
The digital reality of Athens reflects the contradictory reality of the neoliberal city. Access to digital connectivity is precious for sustaining human contact with loved ones and necessary for responding to migration bureaucracy, which is fully online. But reliable access is scarce and most participants depend on precarious connectivity. For example, an app that provided free Wi-Fi access, and which newcomers depended on for vital information and communication, has been disabled. Diminishing digital access comes with increasing digital surveillance and datafication of their lives. Collection of biometric information and incomplete data profiles generated at the European border will determine not only access to rights at present but also in the future, with their prospect of mobility and settlement in Europe remaining subjected to the digitised identities produced for migrants but with them having no control over them. Unequal control and access to data and technologies raise questions about migrants’ communication rights and highlights the urgent need for civic society and international organisations to protect them.
We have a free Wi-Fi portal too. I think most of the people visit us use it to message family and friends, maybe look up information. But last month we had a lot of Coursera sign-ups; we have a collaboration with Coursera for free certified courses. Having qualifications and proof of education is important to many people we speak to. Many of them are highly educated but have no papers to show it or their education qualifications mean nothing here. So, this is important to them.
(Megan & Varvara, digital skills)
The resettlement route in other EU countries has been closed since the Dublin agreement. My biometrics were registered when I first arrived in Greece and because of that I can’t settle anywhere else in Europe. Wherever I go they will scan my info and see that I’ve registered in Greece already. I’ve been told there is a way to cancel biometrics data so you can register in another country, but I don’t know how you go about doing that. The main problem is there is no clarity to immigration law, nothing you can depend on to argue a case. I can’t say, ‘under section 2 of law 4 I have a right to...’.”
(Muhammad, communication rights)
I was told before that all of this was staged so that Western governments like the UK, Germany and US can spy on us. So they can know what we’re thinking, what our plans for migration are. But when I came I saw that the cause here is good. To help and support. Not to spy. So now I’ve been coming to this square for three months. I use the washing machines to clean my clothes, eat and play board games. It’s not like the rest of Athens, it’s a safe place. There are no drugs, no problems, just food and friendship.
I arrived in Greece in March 2016, when the borders were shutting and restricting refugee mobility towards Northern Europe. Misinformation was rampant and rumours were going around about borders opening when they weren’t. Three information initiatives emerged at the Idomeni informal camp, eventually merging as Mobile Info Team. The legal process is dire and there is no political will for real change. All refugees arriving by land, for example, have to pre-register on Skype. Sometimes it can take months, even more than a year, just to get an initial Skype appointment and so many people don’t have access to a reliable internet. And there are many fake Skype accounts running scams. Many are in Urdu and they present themselves as official sites for pre-registration, and then use the documentation of newcomers to falsely apply for asylum.
(Michael, communication rights)