Navigating the aegean, young afghans toil in new-found europe
“I haven’t spoken with my mother for three months,” said Newruz, a 13-year-old Afghan, his light hazel eyes sparkling in the deck lights of a ferry bound to arrive in Athens at dawn.
It is Greece’s Aegean island waters, an array of enticingly short turquoise straits lining Turkey’s coast, that have become Europe’s main gateway for illegal migrants. But the high volumes have placed a burden on Greece, a nation of only 11 million. Greece apprehended nearly 150,000 immigrants in 2008, though that number is only believed to be the tip of the iceberg.
As regional solutions have not impeded the influx of immigrants through Greece’s sea border, illegal immigrants in Greece — the number of which has increased twofold since 2006 — are entering a social system that is struggling to cope.
With the European Union in mind, the boys’ international adventure included working in the construction industry in İstanbul for nearly one month in order to raise enough money to purchase the inflatable raft they used to cross to the Greek island of Lesbos. Paddling throughout the night, exchanging posts when they tired, they were ultimately intercepted at dawn in Greek waters off of the coast of Lesbos.
“What is going on over there?” asked Haralampos Bournias, commander of the Hellenic Coast Guard on the Greek island of Chios, questioning the border control Turkey is maintaining, his head motioning in the direction of the abutting coastline of Turkey, which is visible from his office window.
A document stating the professed nationalities of detained immigrants, which was presented by an official of the coast guard of Chios, reports an overwhelming number of immigrants claiming to be Palestinian, Iraqi and Afghan. But it is the more obscure nationalities, such as Somali, Bangladeshi, Zimbabwean and Burmese, that raise eyebrows as to how these immigrants are entering Turkey, now the key passageway for Europe-bound immigrants.
From Afghanistan to Greece
On the ship’s deck, an on-looking Iraqi immigrant, Umeed, who did not want to reveal his full name, shakes his head in frustration as he watches the jubilant group of Afghan boys, barely into their adolescent years, complete the last leg of their exhausting journey to Europe’s mainland.
The Afghan boys, after being processed briefly in a detention facility and issued a one-way ticket to Athens, are once again set adrift on their own.
“They will sleep in parks; there are so many like them,” Umeed said softly, denying the existence of any functional social system to handle such minors. Umeed, 28 years old, has been in Greece now for seven months. Having entered illegally as the Afghan boys did during winter, Umeed now knows the reality of the dead-end tangle of laws that lock immigrants into unwillingly calling Greece home.
According to the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), Greece’s rate of granting asylum ranks as one of the lowest in the world and the lowest in the EU.
Umeed’s ambition of leaving Greece to seek work remains stalled by the fact that his fingerprints were taken when he was processed on arrival in Greece. According to the Dublin Regulation, an agreement determining which EU member state is responsible for the processing of an asylum case, an immigrant must apply for asylum in the first country of entrance in the EU. Therefore, the odds of Umeed attaining legal status are slim and returning to the violence he fled from in Iraq remains unthinkable, ensuring a life in the shadows.
According to figures released by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Greece granted 0.04 percent of asylum applications for refugee status in 2007. Allegations by human rights organizations of immigrants being duped out of applying for asylum by a poor understanding of their legal rights are bountiful. Many remain idle in Greece’s to largest cities in an endless cycle of catch and release. Deportation orders are rarely enforced and shanty towns have sprawled in the large port cities.
“I don’t understand. I go to the airport to leave, and they arrest me; I stay here, and they arrest me. The police just give me a new document saying I have to leave in 30 days. I can’t move,” sighed Umeed, staring intently at his glowing cigarette.
“I have been in Athens for seven months, and I can’t find work for four months. My family in Iraq has been sending me money. I don’t know what these boys will do; they are so young,” he added.
A recent report by the UNHCR sharply criticized Greece for its detention policies and asylum processing system, urging EU nations not to return immigrants to Greece. In line with such reports, Norway and Germany have refused to exercise their right to return immigrants to Greece for asylum processing. The report also challenged Greece’s asylum system, claiming it lacked essential elements such as interpreters, lawyers and appropriate care for the nearly 1,000 unaccompanied minors that entered Greece in 2008.
In the fluttering wind of the ferry deck, the young boys inspect a white piece of paper with Greek writing on it that was issued by the Mitilini immigrant detention center in Lesbos upon their release. They ask for a translation of the only document they now possess, revealing that they are unaware of their legal situation or status, Newruz tucks the document back into a zippered pouch hidden under his shirt.
Immigration crises are nothing new in Greece, though this one has stumped Greek officials.
Greece is used to the single-source immigration issue with Albania, a former communist nation bordering northern Greece. The influx from Albania began in the early 1990s when Albania’s borders crumbled. The deportations of Albanians were quick and efficient.
Immigrant’s European dreams
Comparatively, this new frontier has become multifaceted, as immigrants from a diverse group of nations arrive without a single document in their name to confirm their identity. Immigrants reportedly crumple photographs and throw passports and other identifying documents into the sea as instructed by smugglers during their crossing. By doing so, the links to their nationalities are erased and the chances of quick deportation are minimized. “How much can we put up with?” asks Bournias, his question striking a harmonious tone with Greece’s current economic woes. In 2009 unemployment is expected to reach 9.2 percent, as reported by Greece’s National Statistical Service.
From his second-floor office window overlooking an alluring harbor, Bournias points to a smuggler’s white speed boat. The boat, anchored below Bournias’ office window, has its name neatly hidden with tape. The smuggler is now in jail, intercepted the previous night for shuttling more than 20 immigrants from Turkey’s coast to Greece. The high-paying jaunt across the short stretches, usually led by what Bournias calls “the lowest links of society,” can make an immigrant’s European dreams a reality in just minutes. The people organizing the smuggling operations, often acting behind the scenes, earn over $1,000 per person for passage to Greece. Bournias claims the poverty-driven smugglers rarely understand the severity of their actions. He estimates the smuggler detained last night will be sentenced to six to seven years in jail. Officials claim such light sentences are hardly enough to deter the lucrative East to West industry, which Bournias claims is worth $8 billion annually.
Journey to hope
Resolving Europe’s immigration issue is a maddening puzzle and one that has defied solution. A regional lag in cooperation between nations has also been compounded by what officials say is the fact that Turkey has not recognized an accord to take back immigrants who left Turkey. Bournias calls for better cooperation in sea patrols with Turkey, though he questions if Turkey is eager to process illegal immigrants.
According to Tafil, a 39-year-old Albanian man who was once an illegal immigrant in Greece, the new wave of migrants are simply following the path his people have already paved. “When you are hungry, nothing matters; you will do anything,” said Tafil, his skin darkened by the sun, now working construction on the island of Chios. He expresses no surprise at the measures people are taking to reach Europe; their reasons for coming are often as complex as the immigration issue itself. “I walked across the border in snow. I didn’t even have money to buy clothes to wear, so I came wearing my military uniform,” said Tafil. Settled in Greece for nearly two decades, his family now owns a clothing store in Albania. He has been sending his wages to Albania, and according to Tafil, it is such wages that have rebuilt a broken nation.
“My son is 16; he will go to university in Albania and find a job. There is no need for him to do the same as me. These new immigrants will do the same; they will work hard,” he added.
A warm summer wind blows over the ferry deck and aspirations rise as mainland Europe is only hours away. “I want to be a politician; I know the problems of Afghanistan. I will fix them,” said Newruz, explaining the contents of his only piece of baggage, a supermarket plastic bag containing a notebook documenting his life in Afghanistan and his international journey.
Reality is revealed by the rising sun in Athens. As the Afghan boys peer nervously over the ship’s railings, the ferry elegantly glides between two large cruise ships in Athens’ port. The previous night’s jubilant smiles on the ship deck are now dimmed as they inspect the first sights of mainland Europe, a place they have voyaged so far to reach. “Do you know what is the meaning of my name?” asked Newruz, “It means new day.”
The organizers must go
As night fell in 2001, “Filozof” found himself at the controls of a large ship. Under the deck were 640 immigrants — children, the elderly, pregnant women and entire families — paying more than $1,000 per person for illegal passage from Turkey’s coast to Greece’s mainland.
But for Filozof, the nickname of a Turk living in İstanbul who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation for speaking to the press, this voyage was something his situation bound him to do. In 2001 his small diving vessel, used to collect snails from Turkey’s Marmara seabed, sank. Filozof lost his livelihood, and his debts mounted.
Filozof recalls falling for the enticing promises of the smuggling organizers, who, he says, still linger at his port, seeking to recruit naïve seamen. But after four years in a Greek prison, Filozof is drained. His $5,000 paycheck never came, and his contact disappeared after the ship docked in a closed cement factory on Greece’s mainland. “I was tricked; I was lied to,” he says in frustration while sitting in an empty cafe at an İstanbul port.
“The solution to the problem is not taking out the little people like us. Like in a war, you cannot just kill everybody; it is the leaders that must go. These big organizers need to go; if they do, then this job wouldn’t exist,” he said.
Crossing into Greek waters, what should have been an eight-hour journey to Greece’s mainland was a two-day trial made up of close calls, including helicopter flyovers and a near boarding by a coast guard ship. In constant contact with someone in Athens by telephone, Filozof recalled receiving orders to maneuver behind islands, waiting for coast guard patrols to return to port, only to proceed with his vessel to the next safe zone when the green light was given by his distant contact.
“I tell everybody I know to not take these jobs. I tell them it is not like what they are told: Their chances of getting caught are high, Greek jail is terrible and you will never get paid, but I cannot tell everybody. That is why it continues,” said Filozof.