"We were 22 people on a rubber boat… We were intercepted by the Greek coast guard. They tied our boat to their motorboat and brought us towards the coast of Turkey. Then they seized our fuel and left us in the middle of the sea. The weather became stormy and the waves were higher. The boat started to sway. It was on May 16 at 2 a.m.. The passengers fell in the water one after the other… then the dinghy capsized. I lost my friend. I started to swim and to fight against the waves of the sea. At the end a fisherman saved me and brought me to the hospital from where I was transferred to the camp."
Yassin, the author of the letter, went to Athens and we lost his tracks. Perhaps the passengers were able to reach Turkey. Perhaps they all drowned. It would not be the first time. Tawfiq knows it for sure. He's Algerian and he lives in Samos. Despite his young age, 23 years old, he is a veteran among the harragas, since he burned the border between Turkey and Greece seven times already. The last time he was alone. On a small dinghy, with two oars, along a route of a couple of miles. His brother, Sufien, was also returned in the open sea by the Greek authorities. We meet him the day after on a beach. In front of a cold beer he tells me about the night of May 2, 2007. No smugglers. They did everything alone. They already knew the route. Himself, his third brother, two cousins and a friend. All Algerians. They bought the oars and a rubber boat. They left from a beach near Kuşadasi, but halfway they were intercepted by the Greek Navy. The agents approached the boat and cut the rubber with a knife causing the zodiac to sink. The motorboat stayed there for a while before all five of them fell in the water and started swimming back. Fortunately they could swim and they were able to reach the coast. But what would have happened if one of them was not able to swim? And what would have happened with winter temperatures? Sinking migrants' boats is a normal practice for the Greek authorities, as widely documented by the 2007 report of Pro Asyl. As well as the rescue’s omission. Bilal and other 23 passengers, who departed from Turkey on a boat on March 12, 2008, waited in vain for nine hours the arrival of Greeks' relief after their phone call. The Greeek motorboat finally arrived but – Bilal said – they soon left after having taken pictures. They therefore decided to call the Turkish coastguard, and were finally saved at around 13.30.
The number of migrants' and refugees' arrivals along the Greek Aegean coasts is increasing in the recent years. At Lesvos, for example, already 4,320 people arrived in the first five months of 2008, as opposed to the 6,370 people who arrived during the whole of 2007. They are mainly Afghans (3,285 in the first 10 months of 2007). And then Iraqis, Kurds, Palestinians, Somalis, Sudanese, Mauritanians, Senegalese, Ivorians, Nigerians, Algerians and Moroccans. The flows are mixed. Migrants and economic refugees. To avoid expulsion, some Africans declare to be Somalis. Just like some Arabs say they are Palestinians or Iraqis. But amongst them there really are many refugees. It is sufficient to visit the former detention camp of Samos to understand it. It is an old building on two floors, in the centre of the city of Vathy. It was closed in November 2007. The writings on the walls tell the stories of three refugees kept here. There are portraits of Yasser Arafat and the flag of Palestine, there are phrases in Amharic and declarations of love to Somalia and Sudan, as well as appeals for the freedom of Kurdistan.
On June the first, 35 people were released from the new detention camp of Samos. I take this opportunity, accompanied by Anna, a militant of the island, to get on the Nissos Mikonos, the ferry going to Athens, and meet them. The Prefecture paid them the ticket. They were released after two or three weeks of detention. Nobody on the Greek islands experience the three months of detention, as it was until last year. Nobody except those who apply for asylum. And in fact nobody does it. In 2007, the 96% of applications for asylum were made in Athens. Before releasing them, the police gives them a document which allows them to stay in Greece for two months and obliges them to leave the Country. But at the same time forbids them to go to the Achaia region, the region of Patra, the port used to cross the border towards Italy. The document is written only in Greek. Nobody can understand it. None knows what to do or where to go once they are in Athens. They are left to themselves. There is also a 16 year old minor, from Guinea. The only chance, once in Piraeus, the port of Athens, is to take the underground to Omonia, the immigrants ghetto under the Acropolis.
The headquarters of the Association of Sudanese refugees are in Xouthou street, behind the window of an anonymous bar of Athens. The President, Adams, received me with a tea. He escaped from Darfur, and arrived in 2004 in Crete, on a container ship that sailed from Port Sudan, in the Red Sea. According to him, at least 450 Sudanese and 400 Somali refugees live in Athens. Potentially they are all political refugees. But de facto all of them received the order to leave the country. One of them, Abdallah, born in 1972, landed in Samos on April 20 2008. From ten days he is officially a clandestine. I met him shortly after in the Maqi hotel, an old hotel occupied by the Sudanese in Satovriandou street, where newcomers sleep for three euros a night in rooms of ten people. Nobody prevents Abdallah and the others to seek asylum in Greece. But waiting times here are in average form three to four years. In the meantime they can work, but at the end of the procedure, the answer will be negative in the 99% of the cases. In 2007 about 25,000 people applied for asylum in Greece, but only 150 received a protection status. That’s why everyone wants to leave. To leave Greece they use false passports or hide themselves in one of the hundreds of trucks which leave Patras on the daily ferries heading to Italy. But their fate is tied to their fingerprints.
It's called the Dublin Regulation II and it obliges the asylum seeker to apply in the first European country he enters. It doesn’t matter if the rate of recognition of asylum cases in Greece is fifty times lower than in Italy or Sweden. If the fingerprints were taken in Greece, in Greece they are condemned to stay. Ali, from Sudan, managed to arrive in Norway one year ago, but they returned him to Athens. Siad the same, from Ireland. Everything is simply irrational. Greece does not want them to stay and that’s why it deports people to Turkey and denies the protection to most asylum seekers. But at the same time Greece forbids them to leave. And if they leave they are sent back. All this while, in the rest of the European countries the requests for asylum have halved in the last years. The only result here is the increasing number of undocumented people working - and exploited - in construction sites in Athens as well in the collection of strawberries in Olimpya or of oranges in Atra. Greece is not what they expected from Europe. So the journey restarts. From Patras. In the obstinate and contrary direction. Towards Italy.
Mohamed shows me one of his drawings. There is a policeman with a knife in his hand and a boy covered with blood, in a grey car parking in front of a port. I was told of this story the day before from Jaber, 16 years old, who saw the scene with his own eyes, running away from the police. It happens every night in Patras. Small groups of ten-fifteen teenagers jump the two metres high fence, at Gate 7, and run towards the second barbed wire fence which surrounds the parking of trucks. To understand if the truck goes to Italy - says Jemmah – we feel the temperature of the tires. If it is hot it means that it has just arrived from Athens and that it will board the next day. If that's the case, they hide themselves inside the trucks before the police arrives. Otherwise they will have a lot of trouble. Jemmah knows it very well. Two months ago he was caught by four agents of the port police. He was kicked on his ear. Then they pushed him to the floor and one agent started walking on his back. And finally they decided to have fun with him. A policeman pointed the gun on his forehead shouting "I will kill you!" And he pressed the trigger. The coup did not explode because they had removed the bullets before. At the end, after the kicks and the fake execution, they asked how old he was. Fourteen he said. And they let him go away. A story like many others. A story of abuses and impunity. A story of racism. How is it possible that a police agent fakes an execution to a 14 year old boy? And how is it possible that a 14 year old boy dies crushed under a truck, as in January 2008, just because he has no other way to reach Italy?
"Our generation was born in the war, we grew up in the war and we escaped from the war. I have not seen anything but destruction, death and abductions since I was born. We lost our beloved. We lost our rights. And we are not recognized as refugees. So how many wars, how many deaths are needed before one can become a refugee?" A young Afghan asked in a public meeting organized by the movement of Patras, on May 25. For the occasion, some activists from Thessaloniki came and brought running water to the slums of the Afghans, thanks to an illegal connection to the aqueduct. About 500 Afghans live there, a third of which are minors. The camp existed since 1996. It was built by the Kurds. Now there are only Afghans. Every night they try to cross the border. It’s a kind of ghetto where hundreds of refugees are concentrated and controlled by the police. Even if there are no cages, people are not allowed to go out from the camp. There are police cars at every corner. They risk to be arrested and maybe kept for three months in the detention centres in Evros or Athens. From the camp you can only escape. At night time. For Italy. Trying to avoid to be caught by the police, by the private guards of the shipping companies and by the truck drivers. And hoping not to be readmitted in Greece nor to die asphyxiated in the lorry. "We are dying every time and we continue to die - concludes the Afghan boy in the meeting - But we are human beings like you. We are not animals. We have the same feelings, as you."
We recommend Italian and European politicians to visit Patras. The Italian parliament is discussing a law according which, being an undocumented immigrant in Italy will become a crime, punishable by up to 18 months in a detention center. The Government is also ready to spend 600 million euros to open 10 new “Centres for identification and deportation”. In a certain way they are simply anticipating the shameful European directive on returns which is going to be approved in June.
What is happening in Europe is very serious.
Every year, tens of millions of tourists reach the Canary Islands, Spain, Greece, Malta and Sicily, welcomed by the smiles of hostesses and waiters. On those same routes, few tens of thousands of unwelcome guests are intercepted by our warships, aircraft and satellites and then detained and deported. And on those same routes hundreds of men, women and children lose their lives. I think of it every time I enter the sea. And I think that it's not normal at all.