We visited Elliniko on June 3. The events mentioned in this blog refer to that visit.
Disused Olympic facilities are generally not a pretty sight. In many cities around the world, huge stadiums, no longer in use, are in various states of disrepair. The Athens 2004 Olympic Games were no different. They left a legacy of empty sporting facilities across the city, and two of the stadiums in the Elliniko complex have been reinvented as an unfit home for several thousand refugees. The old international airport, disused since 2001, is the third component of Elliniko. All three sites were considered official camps at the time of our visit. As of June 2014, however, they were suddenly downgraded to unofficial facilities.
Most of the people living in the three sites at Elliniko come from Afghanistan. Unable to enter the relocation program and faced with a dysfunctional Greek asylum system, they are stuck, their futures dying before them. Closed borders and bad policies give them no choice.
The old airport is the closest to the main road. Outside, an airplane staircase is decorated with a statue of a man boarding an invisible plane, the sculpture now a playground for the many children living there. People have begun to erect tents in the smaller buildings surrounding the main airport building, as the latter is now full. The area is completely open and accessible to anyone. A taxi driver told us that people come to Elliniko to have sex with the refugees. They pay as little as 5 euros $5.60), he says. With no support system and no possibility to find a proper job, many Afghans have been forced into prostitution to make a living.
Inside the building, the old signs are still there, an indication of where the duty-free and departure gates once stood. But no one is departing from Elliniko any longer.
Among the many tents, we see an “I miss you Mom” written on the wall. Three young men live in two tents just beside it, and they are the ones who wrote it. When we ask why, they simply reply: “Who doesn’t miss their mom?” We strike up a conversation with Haroon, Hamed and Mumtaz, who all come from different parts of Afghanistan and have become friends here in Greece. Our chatter soon attracts the attention of three other residents. Farhad, Farzad and Faramarz are lively young brothers who arrived in Greece a few months ago with their parents and have been living in the airport ever since. Despite the surroundings, they maintain their sense of humor and mischief.
The oldest brother, Farhad, is 11 and an incredibly talented artist. We see some of his drawings on the wall, and his father shows us more from his phone: a portrait of [soccer star Lionel] Messi, with an uncanny resemblance; his new friends; Mom and Dad; And Mickey and Minnie Mouse. He took drawing classes in Iran, where his family used to live before realizing they had no future there. We laugh, share apples and play with the youngest brother while Haroon and Hamed tell us about themselves, and Mumtaz tries to talk with family on a broken Skype connection.
Very few organizations visit the airport. There are some information leaflets on a wall, and one organization is distributing food outside when we arrive, but that is it. No one comes here, says Haroon. “We don’t know what to do. We don’t know what we can do.”
Walking away from the airport, a sign reads: “Hockey-baseball-refugees,” signposting the location of the two stadiums.
Outside the hockey stadium, a young boy is trying to fly his kite. There is little wind, so his mission is difficult. He still tries, runs, smiles, tries again. Inside the stadium, dozens of tents are scattered around. The atmosphere here is much gloomier than in the airport, but children still play on the field, and drawings hang on the walls. A representative from the Greek authorities is present, and he grudgingly shows us around. This location seems more organized, and there is even a UNHCR information point. It looks quite arbitrary that the hockey stadium is visited by authorities and organizations, while the airport seems not to be.
Tired, depressed and sunburnt, we move on. The baseball stadium is just next to the hockey one. That’s the one that hits me hardest. Maybe it’s because of the red dust flying around. Maybe it’s because the white UNHCR tents look so out of place in a disused Olympic stadium. Maybe it’s because of that dirty leaking passage to the rear end of the seating area, where even more people are living in tents. Maybe it’s because the children there are friendly in a different way – more demanding, more exigent; they seem troubled and they certainly need medical attention. Maybe it’s because I realize that the people living there will have to stay in that place for a very long time. Or maybe it’s because I find myself standing at the pitcher’s end of the stadium in the blistering heat, looking out on to a sea of tents surrounded by plastic blue chairs covered in dust, and all I can think is: “Is this really Europe?”
We leave, feeling guiltily glad knowing we can actually leave. By sheer luck, we have been given the right to do so. Because we were born in Italy, Portugal and Greece – and not Afghanistan, or Syria, or Somalia – somehow it was decided that our passports are worth more than those of all the women, men and children of Elliniko.
At the time of our visit, there were around 4,000 residents in Elliniko. According to figures released on August 5, there are still almost 3,000 people there. Episodes of violence, and even deaths within the camps have occurred regularly over the past few months. There are talks of evacuating the three sites, but with the search for alternative venues still ongoing, the process is likely to take some time. According to a source, “[t]he Greek government – in a deal to secure bailout money – recently sold the complex to developers planning to build luxury housing. The people here will soon relocate to other places with better conditions.”
This op-ed was first published by the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), 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. 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.