We visited the port of Piraeus in Athens on June 1. The events mentioned in this blog refer to that visit.
“We are in the same city. How can it be that they live here and I live in a flat?” Mohammed wondered as we walked around the hundreds of tents erected around Terminal E 1.5 in Piraeus. The port of Athens, a popular transit hub for tourists, became an unlikely home for several thousand people ever since the border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) began to close at the beginning of 2016.
At the time of our visit in early June, around 1,200 people were living in Terminal E 1.5, and another 1,700 lived in the neighboring terminal, E 2. In previous months, however, as many as 5,000 people were living in four terminals in the port area.
At the end of March, the Greek authorities started evacuating refugees from two of the terminals in Piraeus to official camps around the Attica region, some close to Athens and some further away. More recently, Terminals E 1.5 and E 2 were also evacuated. However, most people were reluctant to be transferred to other camps.
Mohammed – our “guide” to the camp – explained this reluctance: “People are afraid they will be forgotten in those camps outside of the city. If no one sees you, you’ll be forgotten. They feel that here, even if the conditions are bad, they are visible.”
The young Syrian used to come to Piraeus every day, cooking lunch for the 1,200 inhabitants and helping organize activities for the many children. Mohammed was an English student in his hometown of Deir Ezzor, so his flawless English made him a natural point of contact for volunteers and refugees.
Unlike most people in Piraeus, who come from Afghanistan and have very limited options, Mohammed is eligible for relocation. As a result, he was lucky enough to be accepted into a UNHCR program managed by the Greek nongovernmental organization Praksis that allows people waiting for relocation to live in a shared flat. As we spoke under a bridge in front of a warehouse, we were distracted by a movie-like scene of a coast guard car driving furiously up to a tent, dangerously close to a child, to stop two young men who had tried to enter the camp to be with their families without passing through the formal entrance.
The army, which was guarding the informal camp at the time of our visit, provided a sort of registration paper to the residents, and stamped it to certify they were living there. From April 15, however, as Mohammed told us, they stopped stamping the papers so that new inhabitants could not settle there. He explained that the new rules separated some families.
In what seemed like an attempt to reduce the number of people in the camp, the authorities were making conditions unbearable and the rules harder to comply with. Fewer organizations were allowed in, the food provided was of very bad quality and the system put in place to control entry and exit meant that, even for Mohammed, it was hard to convince the authorities he was a volunteer, and some days he was not allowed in.
As access to the camp became increasingly difficult, sometimes he slept there. However, he said, “if I was sleeping here for more than three days, I would lose my mind.”
Mohammed is a well-known figure in the camp. During our chat, we were frequently interrupted by people coming to greet him, to ask for his help or to tell him something. At a certain moment, three heavily pregnant women approached, complaining that they couldn’t sleep in the tents any longer – their due date was too soon. They didn’t know what to do or what their options were: Could they go to an official camp? Could they go to a hospital? Would they be allowed in?
Mohammed immediately took them to Praksis, which is present at the port every day with an ambulance to provide medical care, to see if they could help the women. The organization, previously unaware of these cases, took care of them and referred them as vulnerable cases to the UNHCR.
This small incident made evident how refugees’ access to information is limited. What if Mohammed wasn’t there that day? Would those women have had to give birth in a tent under a bridge? Lack of information was one of the most pressing issues we saw everywhere we went during our time in Greece.
But even when people know where to go for information, it may not be enough. Praksis told us that they sometimes do not have enough information to give to people. Working in that camp, where the majority of people were Afghan and did not have many options, was disheartening, the social worker explained. “People are completely stuck, the registration process is not moving and we do not know what to tell people anymore,” she added.
As we left the camp with Mohammed, we could only hope that the new camps where people are being transferred would provide more reliable information to their residents. The wait – and the inability to know what will happen – is making many regret their attempt to seek safety in Europe. Mohammed told us of a family who managed to go back to Iraq. He also told us of many ways that smugglers were operating from Athens and from the FYROM border.
“If you have money, you have a chance to leave. It’s risky, but it can work,” he said. “Unfortunately, most of the people stuck here have completely run out of money.”
This op-ed was first published by, a pan-European alliance of 90 NGOs protecting and advancing the rights of refugees, asylum seekers and displaced persons, and the AIRE Centre. An ECRE & the AIRE Centre delegation went on a fact-finding visit to Greece from May 28 to June 5, 2016. A majority of the settlements have been dismantled since the mission, but many asylum seekers remain inside Greece.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Refugees Deeply.