Long wait ahead for migrants who reach Greece

We are in Katechaki, an area not far from the centre of the Greek capital city, Athens. The time is 11 p.m. There is a group waiting outside a large building by the local metro station, but these are not people queuing for work or to collect their wages. They are migrants waiting to make applications for asylum after being forced to leave their own countries.

We catch Turkish, Kurdish, Arabic and Urdu words drifting out of the crowd of people wrapped in blankets, leaning against the building’s railings.

As the flash from our camera breaks the stillness of the night, many members of the group ask us not to take pictures of their faces. Some fear their images and full names being published for security reasons, others do not want their families to see them. Each has a different story, but they share a single aim: to submit an application at the Greek asylum agency and gain official refugee status.

Ramazan, 34, from Diyarbakır in south-east Turkey, is one of these. He left Turkey for Athens one month ago due after facing political and economic pressures back home. He has waited in front of the building every night for a week for the chance to apply in the morning for an asylum seeker’s card that will make his status legal, dispelling his fears of being detained by police, and will at the same time grant him the right to work.

Vedat, from Turkey’s capital city of Ankara, joined the line of refugees at around 8 p.m. His aim is to continue on to Western Europe, but he has had no luck after two months of trying. Vedat tells us he had been caught the previous month trying to leave Greece with a fake passport – one of the 5,633 people the Greek Ministry of Migration Policy announced had been caught doing so in 2018.

Like many migrants, the only documents Vedat has on him are temporary papers issued by the asylum bureau when he was caught after crossing the Maritsa river into Greece. He wants to obtain an asylum seeker’s card to be able to travel freely in the country. To get one will require many nights of waiting in the queue just to reach the agency.

İbrahim Yılmaztekin, a native of Diyarbakır, seeks refugee status in Greece.
İbrahim Yılmaztekin, a native of Diyarbakır, seeks refugee status in Greece.

Our conversation with the asylum seekers is interrupted by the calls of İbrahim Yılmaztekin, another native of Diyarbakır who comes round each night to sell the migrants tea and instant coffee that will help them through the 3 degree cold of the night. 

Yılmaztekin, a welder by trade, makes a living by selling the hot drinks, but he also rents out blankets at two euros a night to the people in the line – though he is not too strict in this regard. “I take money from those who have it, but I don’t charge people who don’t. I have to try not to be a burder on anyone,” he says.

Yılmaztekin has no home of his own to go to, and has stayed for the past 28 months in front of the bureau. But he shows more concern for the families in the line, some of whom he says end up in a miserable state after waiting for three or four moths without being able to get into the building.

He explains that there is a quota on applicants from Turkey, from whom the office accepts applications only on Wednesdays, and then only a maximum of 20 at a time. This is why the group waiting outside the office this Tuesday is made up mostly of people from Turkey.

The Greek government announced in November there are 74,000 refugees in Greece. Given that 3,807 Turks had applied for refugee status between January and October in 2018 alone, the government’s reasons for limiting applications for Turks to 20 a week are clear.

“There’s no future in Greece,” Yılmaztekin tells us. “I can’t work as a welder here because I don’t know the language. If I had the money, I would go to a developed country like Norway or Germany and live like a human being. But for this you need 8,000 or 10,000 euros. I can’t find money like that.” 

The welder explains he left his elderly parents behind when he was forced to flee Turkey in 2015. He begins to reminisce about the food he misses from his home country, then expresses himself more clearly: “I miss everything about Diyarbakır.”

Besides the refugees from Turkey, we meet Esad from Basra, Iraq, who has joined the queue with his wife and three young children. 

Esad and his family spent four months at a camp on the Greek island of Samos after crossing the Aegean from Turkey. When they managed to obtain a permit to cross to the mainland, they came directly to the bureau in Katechaki, but after waiting for 10 nights have still been unable to make their applications.

It hurts him and his wife to see their two daughters and baby son forced to wait outside in the cold, Esad tells us, but they have little choice. “Even when the doors open in the morning, the officials often make us wait another day. And the police are not at all welcoming to refugees,” he says.

By the time the weather begins to brighten, the queue outside the refugee office has stretched all the way along the pavement. Movement begins outside the bureau doors at 7 a.m., but there is a 15-minute delay before officials appear at the door. Those who had been told the previous days to “come tomorrow” begin struggling to get in, forcing the people who have waited overnight to fight to hold onto their places.

One man who has had enough of the struggle to get in is Ahmet, 29, from Denizli in western Turkey. After waiting in line from 7 p.m. the previous night and then inside the bureau until noon, Ahmet was sent away without making his application and told families with children were being given priority. This was the sixth time he has tried to make the application, and he told us at this point he had completely lost hope:

“They don’t allow us to leave the country or to stay in it. I’ll never wait in this queue again. I’ll go on living illegally.”

Migrants waiting to make applications for asylum in Katechaki, Greece.
Migrants waiting to make applications for asylum in Katechaki, Greece.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.