There are new arrivals in the once grand park of Pedion tou Areos in central Athens. Among the drug dealers and dog walkers, joggers and junkies, are a shifting cast of refugee children. Lured into the vastness of its ruined tree-lined avenues and vandalized statues by the promise of money and a way out of Greece, they have found themselves prey to a burgeoning sex trade.
Every day as the intense heat of Athenian summer slides towards sunset, young boys take their places, sitting alone on benches, waiting for a nervous game of eye contact to begin. Older men, some pretending to read newspapers, others pretending to be out for an early evening stroll, assess the marketplace.
Activity is usually most intense at a secluded pedestrian roundabout, where a chin-high hedge offers the promise of privacy. Inside the bushes is a broken fountain and a small clearing long enough to lie down in. A filthy foam mattress has been unrolled on the grass surrounded by discarded cans and bottles, and a handful of used condom wrappers. It’s an open-air brothel.
Outside, a handsome boy with black hair and blue eyes, who looks no older than 15, is more confident than the others and patrols the circle meeting the gaze of all around him. Spotting a lone, older man on a bench, he approaches and sits down. He says his name is Zehman and adds in broken English that he is 16 and from Afghanistan.
He moves closer and waits for a proposal. When it’s made clear that there are only questions on offer and no money, he gets nervous and moves on.
A few benches away sits Ali, hunched over, looking exhausted. He has none of Zehman’s swagger, or even his broken English, but he is less coy. Offered a phone to talk to a colleague in Farsi, he says he is 17 and has been in Greece for three months. He agrees to meet the next morning outside of the park and tell his story.
“I never thought I’d have to do something like this,” Ali admits. “When the money ran out I had to learn to do this. The first time I did it I felt very ashamed, but over time you start to get used to it. It was the first time I do this, I had no experience.”
At such a young age, Ali, whose straight, dark hair falls into his eyes, is already twice a refugee. His father fled Daykundi province in central Afghanistan during the Soviet war in the 1980s. They made it as far as Tehran, the capital of Iran. When his father died, Ali moved in with his uncle who already had too many mouths to feed.
There are few prospects for Ali’s generation, with nearly 1 million registered Afghan refugees growing up in Iran, most, like him, living in hardscrabble poverty on the outskirts of Tehran. One day last year, he says, he realized that all his friends had left, so there was no reason to stay: “When everyone leaves, you feel left behind.”
Getting to Greece involved an 18-hour trek through the snow and past dead, frozen bodies over the mountains into Turkey. Once across the border it was a bus journey to Istanbul and down to the coast, across the water from the Greek island of Lesbos.
The first attempt to reach Greece ended when the overcrowded dinghy he was in sank. Luckily it was near enough to the Turkish shore that they could swim back. After nightfall they clambered into another inflatable and tried again. Although he remembers being scared by the night and the overcrowding, once the other shore was reached “we thought we’d arrived in a dream.”
Ali and his boatload of new friends got temporary papers and left Lesbos the next day on a ferry to Athens. Everyone was in a terrible hurry after the closure of Greece’s northern borders, he says. After risking so much to get this far, there was a forlorn hope that he could continue.
Together with some other boys he traveled north to the informal refugee encampment at Idomeni on the border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). They stayed for 10 days in appalling conditions, hoping to somehow find a way through the Greek border. “I needed to know it really was closed,” he says.
Ali’s phone, on which he once exchanged excited Viber and Facebook messages with a friend who had reached Austria, is gone. So is almost everything else. He has been wearing the same clothes for a week. He has more, but they’re equally filthy and kept in a plastic bag inside the park.
Sometimes the men who want sex give him 10 euros ($11), sometimes only 5 euros. Most of the time the men want sex up against a tree or in the bushes, he says. Most of them don’t use condoms. Some of the younger or prettier boys can earn up to 30 euros a time and are taken to apartments or to the cheap hotels that line the nearby Victoria Square.
“These men are ill,” Ali says of the clients. “They’re deeply sick.”
Tassos Smetopoulos, an experienced Greek social worker who has been monitoring the drug scene and the arrival of refugees in greater numbers at the park, has his own explanation. “The word is out that these kids are the cheapest and the youngest,” he says. “They have got mixed up in a crisis that has nothing to do with them and has been years in the making.”
These children who came to Europe in the hope of a better life have found themselves as collateral damage in the worst economic crisis the E.U. has seen. After six years of precipitous recession, there are whole areas of the Greek capital, like Pedion tou Areos, where the state is effectively absent.
After the closure of its borders, 57,000 refugees and migrants have been stranded in a country wholly unprepared to look after them. Nearly 40 percent of the new arrivals in Greece in 2016 are children, of whom 1,146 are registered as unaccompanied minors. Most of the children traveling alone do not even appear in these figures as they have avoided being registered as underage, like Ali did, for fear of being detained.