It’s Friday afternoon, and the air in downtown Athens is fetid and suffocating. Hundreds of immigrants stand around at the margins of the old market in Sokratous Street. Despite its venerable name, Sokratous is today perhaps the shabbiest, most run-down corner of the dilapidated Greek capital.
Filthy dosshouses fringe the marketplace. Migrants lean out of the buildings’ broken windows; meanwhile others rummage through nearby garbage containers, looking for anything that can be salvaged and sold.
Some of those at the Athens marketplace are legally recognised immigrants, struggling to pay their social security contributions and maintain their status.
Many others are among the several hundred thousand economic migrants and refugees living outside the law in the Greek capital’s migrant underground. Having been sold the European dream, they are hoping to transit onto wealthier Northern European countries. Yet with Greece’s borders closed to the rest of Europe due to those migration flows, they have little chance of doing so.
So these migrants eke out a furtive existence in Athens, trying to avoid detection by the authorities, stay alive, and one day succeed in catching a ferry to Italy.
Jamail is 25, a tall, thin Algerian with a broad gash across his face. Like many of the immigrants at the market, he arrived in Greece via Turkey.
"Everything here is difficult," he told New Matilda in broken French.
"I sleep outside, over there," he says, gesturing down the hill.
"I’ve been here three years, I have no work and no house. I’ve tried to leave Greece many times."
35 year-old Rose from Ghana also bears scars on her face. "They won’t give me papers, even though I had a baby here. They say it’s a refugee baby. I have no job. I sleep at friends’ places and want to leave. Five times, I haven’t succeeded."
Greece’s financial crisis has been in the headlines for years now, but the country’s futile attempts to control migrant flows is their less-reported crisis.
There are as many as 1.3 million migrants currently in Greece, say demographers, of a total population of just under 11 million. And after Italy and Spain tightened controls at border crossings and overhauled deportation treaties with North African nations, Greece has been handling around 90 per cent of all unauthorised entries into the European Union. At the start of the financial crisis in 2008, that figure was about 50 per cent.
Indeed, due to the country’s financial difficulties, the Greek state is simply unable to cope with the numbers of migrants that are arriving, Immigration Union of Greece president Gean Daniencolombani told New Matilda.
Daniencolombani says parlous finances have led to breakdowns in the migrant processing system — one in which the Greek police (currently still in charge of processing migrants) are in many instances unable to do their job adequately.
"If they stop all the people, they don’t have a place where they will take them. That’s why many people, they leave them in the streets. They give them a piece of paper [a deportation notice]and say to them: ‘Hi, go away,’" Daniencolombani said, referring to the Greek police.
"The police cannot have all the migrants in the prison, they don’t have the money to give them food or a place to live."
International agencies — including the European Court of Human Rights — and the UN High Commission for Refugees have recommended that other European countries abstain from sending back migrants to Greece.
In theory, European migration agreement Dublin II stipulates that Greece ought to be processing migration claims for all those who enter into the European Union via the country.
But after deeming the Greek migrant processing system "inhumane", the European Court of Human Rights last year upheld an Afghan migrant’s claim against the Belgian government’s decision to send him back to Greece.
In response to those kinds of rulings, Greece has announced changes to its migration system. Theoretically, responsibility for processing migrants has been taken away from the police and handed to three new government migration agencies, a UNHCR spokeswoman in Athens told NM.
But due to "the economic crisis and austerity measures" the services are not yet "operational", she added — leaving the police still in charge of migrant processing for the time being.
Still, unemployment, homelessness and chaotic processing are not the only things worrying new migrant arrivals in Greece these days.
Racial violence against migrants — some apparently carried out by popular fascist party Golden Dawn and its supporters — is an increasingly common occurrence. As many as six migrants are currently being treated in just one Athens hospital every day due to racial attacks, Greek daily Kathimerini’s English-language edition reported yesterday.
Migrants were beaten with metal bars in two separate incidents on Crete last week. Meanwhile, several Golden Dawn supporters were among those arrested in connection to a gang attack on a Pakistani migrant in the Athens suburb of Attica, the paper wrote.
Golden Dawn won 6.9 per cent of the vote in national elections a week ago.
As Greek citizens are forced to take on more menial jobs due to the crisis, sociologists are concerned that the fascist party’s support will further increase as Greeks compete with immigrants for work.
"Whereas in the past migrants were addressing the labour market gaps for physical, hard jobs, because of the crisis [Greeks] have to compete in the same labour market with immigrants," said Professor Charalambos Kasimis from the Agricultural University of Athens.
"Racist and anti-immigrant feelings will grow, in my opinion — and Golden Dawn will exploit this kind of situation."
Rising racial violence may not be the only flow-on from the crisis. Kasimis says due to the crisis, "more legal immigrants [will]go back to illegality". Unable to pay mandatory social security contributions (a sine qua non for maintaining legal status in Greece), many immigrants may end up back in the Athens migrant underground, he says.
Back at the Sokratous Street market, 45-year-old Pakistani refugee and sponge salesman Mohammed said he’s finding it difficult to pay those social security contributions, and often considers returning to Pakistan.
"It’s 2600 euros every two years, and business is very bad. [I think about going home] all the time. But I’ve got problems here, and I’ve got problems there," he said with a laugh.
New Matilda attempted to contact the Greek Ministry of the Interior’s migration unit, but they did not reply by deadline.
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