Category Archives: Refugee Blog

West Side Story, Migration, and the Crisis

I just got back from watching a Greek production of West Side Story. Though I am familiar with the movie, the songs and of course the music and the plot, attending this performance in the middle of the wave of mass population movement  made me give the performance my undivided attention. Racism, violence, belonging and not belonging, migration economic and social, opportunity, poverty, ignorance, the view of the other, a hope for a better tomorrow: all these themes gave me pause.

So this is but a very short entry into our ongoing summer blog but please do read these lines and perhaps watch the movie over the summer because it remains as relevant as ever.

This is a great scene and very telling:



A Humanitarian Crisis In The News

It is no secret that the media has been one of the most powerful means of communication. The interpretation that each media outlet gives to crucial issues affects the way people understand the news and help shape their opinions. The refugee crisis in Greece has been widely covered during the past months due to the magnitude of the issue. The mass population movement in the summer of 2015 onwards was the largest for Europe since the Second World War and for that fact alone it drew media attention.. Newspaper headlines and TV stations focused heavily on refugee and migrant stories portraying the tragic misfortune of these people. Nonetheless, after a long stretch of time, references to the crisis have been steadily decreasing and the media has curtailed its updates on the refugees just as article seemed to have quickly dried up.

There are a number of reasons associated with the decrease of coverage of the refugee crisis. First and foremost, people have started getting used to it and such stories don’t command people’s attention as much as in the past when the crisis was still fresh and shocking. Both the Greek and global societies are aware of the situation; refugees have been in Greece for months now and one would even say that they are no longer an emergency that needs to be covered by the media. After all the media has to follow the news. A few weeks ago the British referendum and the subsequent result for Brexit dominated headlines while this week the tragic terrorist attack in Nice and then the attempted coup in Turkey have left the world speechless. It is only logical that the media constantly shifts its focus to present the current affairs and updates on major issues.

Another element however, is that the refugees themselves do not seem to t want the media all over their lives. In February the government announced that until further notice, no permission would be given to any reporter or TV station to enter the refugee camps. While the government gave no official reason as to why the camps suddenly became a no media zone, many perceived this ban as an attempt to hide what they described as the harsh reality of the camps and the incapability of the government to change to offer better services.

However, one must look at the flip side of this. During an interview we conducted with a volunteer helping at Elliniko airport, I was intrigued by her interpretation behind the government’s decision. She told us that it is the refugees who don’t want the media in the camps. I was told that no one wanted to be filmed or recorded in such a condition. These people have been through a lot and many of them are embarrassed of their current condition in comparison to their pre-war one. “All they want is to be left alone, they don’t want to be recorded in their misery by a media station just so the station can sell one more story,” she explained. The refugees are tired and the permanence of the situation has made them less and less willing to be interviewed or filmed.

The question arising here is rather interesting. On the one hand, information on such a crucial issue shouldn’t just be cut off like that. It is a crisis that has changed and will change the Greek and European society in the years to come and it cannot be ignored. Large numbers of people coming from a different culture have been added to the European population and are part of the Europe’s future. On the other hand, the media also needs to be respectful of the dignity and rights of the refugees. They have already suffered a lot and should have a life as normal as possible and their privacy guarded. It is a humanitarian crisis after all and it needs to be dealt with both with respect and caution and certainly not with opportunism. The challenge here will be to find a balanced way for the media to continue to give updates on the crisis without putting the refugees’ dignity at risk. This wave of mass migration to Europe while having a lasting impact on the Continent and though the news cycle may change because of the most current events, this humanitarian crisis has not gone away. It is ongoing and as such it will continue to draw news coverage to which access to information remains vital.



Migration, Refugees and Free movement of People

I have been attending the 17th annual Symi symposium on Kos Island entitled Exodus: Population movements in a changing world. Naturally, it’s the refugee crisis that’s at the forefront of everyone’s mind. But is it only the refugee crisis seen from the perspective of European member states?

In a session about the Brexit and its impact on both the UK and the EU, it became clear that – at least for the British – the question of free movement of people in  the EU was also very much a problem, for at least for the 52% of the people who voted for the Brexit.

Admittedly, I was somewhat surprised. The free movement of people was something that the Union has been advocating for the longest time. What kind of single market would we have, what kind of economic movement would it be if Europeans could not move freely across the borders. In fact, for the longest time, the critique was that Europeans were reluctant to move to other European countries primarily because of language barriers but also because of strong family ties as well as different professional accreditation systems.

Yet, in the past decade, the UK experienced an inordinate influx of other Europeans who came there to not only work in finance, the arts, and the universities. All sorts of professionals chose to make the UK their home, (just as over 500.000 British chose to make Spain theirs, I might add.)

While counting for ½ of the migrants entering the UK, British resentment was directed toward them  – their fellow Europeans . This was particularly intense on the part of those who saw their wages drop considerably through competition making it clear that for many the ‘free movement of people’ posed more of a threat than a step toward greater European Unification. Hearing it from the British themselves at this symposium, I was puzzled that the word migration did not conjure up this image in my mind at all. Was this a fundamental difference between the British experience and the one that the Continent is going through? Is it again an aspect of British exceptionalism? Either way, it became clear that new questions were now arising and a meaningful conversation was now necessary.

An interesting point to note was that Institutions are warning us that climate change and economic inequality globally is a sure push for mass migration above and beyond the repercussions of conflict. As inevitable as this movement seems to be the Brexit reminds us that there is an even more fundamental question that emerged over the  movement within member states of the EU itself. To draw a comparison with the United States the question that arises is whether Texans should or should not be able to move to New York and vice versa.

I am still processing this information hoping to understand what it might mean in terms of policy formulation, the framing of mass population movement and the amendments that might be necessary to the economic model of open economies to respond to these challenges.


Snapshot of the current moment in Greece

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.


Celebrating Eid in Athens

The past two evenings, I have visited my friends in the Hotel City Plaza to celebrate Eid, the Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan. After a month of fasting, people are dancing, eating sweets, and sending happy selfies to loved ones around the world.


Last night, my friend’s two children (who are already speaking English, Greek, and a bit of German) pulled me onto the dance floor, where the music alternated between Syrian and Afghan music. Between dancing and constant offerings of more dessert, I also got the opportunity to meet more people in the squat, including several Syrians who have learned excellent English since arriving in Europe, volunteers from Greece and around the world, and a new mother holding her 12-day-old baby.


The atmosphere was very fun, with a sense of community and connection between Syrians, Greeks, Afghans, Iraqis, locals, and foreigners, showing each other dance steps, while many people there took breaks to call and wish their family back home Eid Mubarak on skype. The evening for me was a great example of inclusiveness and the resilience of the individuals in this new community. A great way to spend my last few nights in Athens!


Dignified Housing

A recurring theme in our conversations with refugees is how their living conditions in Greece are tied in to their feelings of dignity and self-reliance.

Some camps, like the camp at the abandoned Elliniko airport, are mostly sustained by humanitarian organizations that provide daily meals, portable toilets, and medical care. People who spend time in these camps tell us that resources are strained and tensions are high. People are frustrated and embarrassed by the need to wait in lines every day in the heat for food, for the toilet, and the shower.

Conditions are better at other camps, such as the camp run by the Athens municipality. People are afforded more privacy, space, and their own toilet and sink. However, when asked, they said they wished they could make their own food, and they disliked not having choices about which foods they could eat each day.

The real issue is not about how the camp food could be improved; it is that people want to feel the dignity that comes from working and having choices. Many refugees in conversations with us have said that they would prefer to work or to cook their own food than to depend on others to provide everything.

There are also alternatives to camps aimed to increase the self-reliance of refugee families. The organization Praksis has filled 540 apartments around Athens with refugee families. According to one employee we spoke to, the UNHCR has called this program one the of the largest initiatives of its kind. Praksis visits each family several times a week and provides the families with transport tickets and grocery vouchers. Under this system, families not only have the safety and privacy of their own living spaces, but they also have the freedom of movement around the city and options about which foods and groceries they want to buy. Praksis provides the necessary support, and refugee families are also encouraged to learn how to navigate the city independently.

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Another alternative to camp life is community living in one of the squats around the city. The squats we have visited are supported by Greek ‘solidarians’ (some prefer this term to ‘volunteer’), and they function like co-ops. Refugees live in community settings and play a role in the decision making and day-to-day operations of the squats. This includes contributing to communal cooking, cleaning, and even fixing the plumbing. Many people have also learned English from workshops in the squats. The people we spoke to told us that they preferred the working and cooking in the squats, because they were able to feel productive, even as they wait in Greece for the next step in their journey.

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On a final note, although dignified living conditions are a day-to-day concern for refugees in Greece, most also say that their most pressing need is to have their case for asylum processed. One woman I spoke to said that many other refugees actually become worried when camp conditions improve, because they are afraid that this means the camp is preparing to be a long-term home for refugees. She emphasized that she wouldn’t mind the food or the conditions as long as she could know what would happen to her asylum application, because being granted official status in Europe would allow her and her family to find work and finally begin their lives again.



Food for thought: Law and Order a la carte?

This morning Annalisa was recounting stories of her encounters with refugees and volunteers from the day before. She joined a group of volunteers in Pireas helping to prepare sweets for Eid which was celebrated with gusto by refugees commemorating this happy holiday. She also had the opportunity to catch up with friends who were updating her on their plans to reunite with their families or reach what they consider their final destination.

From her conversations and in continuation of her previous blog about smugglers and the smuggling rings, phase two has already begun. Refugees with families in other European countries have grown tired of waiting for the official channels to reunite them, and after months some are taking matters in their own hands.

While success may not be guaranteed, they know that they can try again in the near future. Whatever happens, these attempts, they figure, will certainly reduce the waiting period that has already lasted many months.

Here are some interesting points that arose from our discussion: Refugees fled their country fearing for their lives. They paid to be smuggled to Europe. They landed there and perhaps to their chagrin found less that optimal conditions not only with regard to food and shelter but with regard to the clarity surrounding when and where their plight and flight will end.

They waited for their interviews. They waited for their second interview. They kept waiting. Some already had husbands working and settled in other countries, yet even their cases have been taking very long to process. So they waited, but they were not without means, and they were quickly running out of patience. Once again, the smugglers would come to the rescue, proving that they must have some kind of  institutional links that are  helping them  supply the necessary documents needed to reach one’s final destination.

So people enter illegally out of fear, seeking refuge. The point of entry – in this case Greece – is still not as prepared as it should have been and should be over a year into the mass influx.  European nations are squabbling over whether or not they want to receive migrants at all and how many. The process is complicated and takes a long time. When it works, it often creates disappointment for refugees who believe their best prospects lie in Germany first and foremost but northern Europe more generally only to find out that they are not going there after all.

Over time, they go back to the smugglers to finish up their trip as they had originally envisioned it.  So they leave a dysfunctional corrupt war torn country to come to Europe, where member states are supposed to be functional democracies where law and order exist and rules are meant to be adhered to.  However, because things are not working out as quickly or as efficiently as they could, they chose to again circumvent the laws to achieve their goals. Simultaneously they also seek to be protected as individuals, as new communities that have now entered a space about which they know very little. Of course, as my conversation with Annalisa revealed: What would most of us do in such a case, wait for the system to work in order to prove a principal? It is highly unlikely that we would. Time is short when one is pressed for closure. It does, however, underscore the problematic nature of seeing law and order only as a long menu of options from which we can select whatever suits us while expecting for it to continue to function properly when we most need its protection. If each of us reacts based on our individual needs and desires what would that signify for a state?

In the 21st century and in the information age time has lost its value and meaning. Everyone expects things to happen quickly, efficiently. They expect systems that had been created decades ago to serve other needs to now instantly adapt to the new pressing realities. There are many excuses for why inertia kills change and leads us to undertake other actions in order to satisfy our agendas at every level. Mostly, it’s the failure of government to perform its most basic functions combined with the fact that the economies of once stronger nations are now hurting, becoming less generous with their resources and their services.

The point of these observations is not to blame anyone but it is meant to spark a healthy conversation about how we need to preserve a functioning system that will not push individuals to take matters into their own hands to hasten outcomes and to survive during a difficult period. What some refugees are doing in trying to reach their final destination, Greeks are now increasingly doing to survive the unending and upending economic crisis where the state has had 7 years to perform its duty and has failed repeatedly to move the ship forward. This explains why now it seems increasingly clear that people in Greece are scrambling more than ever to circumvent a system that makes it impossible to stay afloat. And why in their case as well, there are many reasons that make the choices they make to select only the parts of the menu that best fit their circumstances so understandable.