We arrived in Athens during a unique moment in the crisis. As we began our research, the holy month of Ramadan was just beginning; the fasting and the heat of the summer seemed to increase impatience in the camps. Most of the refugees here have been in limbo for a few months since the borders closed in March. There have fewer new arrivals since the EU-Turkey deal, and the media attention surrounding the crisis has abated somewhat as the dramatic scenes of arrivals onto the Greek islands have slowed.
The Greek authorities shut down the Idomeni camp on Greece’s northern border the week before we got here, transferring people to new camps set up in old military barracks. The people staying at Piraeus port were consolidated in a new location, and it has been reported that asylum seekers at the port and at the old Elliniko airport will be moved to new locations by July 20th. Those in camps on the Greek islands, many of whom arrived after the EU-Turkey deal was signed, are not allowed to make their way to Athens as they await a decision on their status. Some take the risk of being smuggled to the mainland to avoid deportation, but others are waiting in the formal camps for further information.
Around the time we arrived, the UNHCR began pre-registering asylum-seekers for their asylum interview appointments with the European Asylum Support Office. For those residing outside of camps, the pre-registration must be done over skype by calling a single skype ID during the few hours a week the Arabic-speakers were online. It has taken people many weeks for their calls to even get through, but by now, Syrians are slowly but surely scheduling their appointments. Afghans by and large are not, because they do not qualify for relocation to other EU countries. Even over the past 6 weeks, we have observed the confusion, disorganization, and misinformation about the asylum application process diminish over time.
Over the next several months, much of this picture will change. Though the interviews are now underway, formal relocations have barely begun. Over the next few months, the limbo will finally end for some people as they are re-settled in new countries, while others will finally accept that they are staying. Once people are no longer in the “flight mode” mentality of wanting to move on from Greece, integration efforts will most likely look different. The short-term urgency of the situation will give way to the long-term efforts to support the integration of refugees into Greek workplaces, neighborhoods, and classrooms.
In some ways, the sentiment we are capturing in our interviews reflects a temporary situation and may not be generalizable past the next several months. However we also have a unique perspective on this particular waiting period during the crisis. Issues such as misinformation, frustration with waiting in limbo, and uncertainty about the future might soon be resolved, but we have now documented the ways in which these issues have impacted the experiences of refugees in Athens over the past several months. It will be interesting to see what will change in the months to come.