In Athens’ largest and most central park, Pedion tou Areos, young activists are handing out water bottles, food, Band-Aids and toys to a growing camp of refugees from Afghanistan. The activists are tech savvy, mobilizing on Twitter with hashtags like #pedion_areos, #refugeesGR, and #refugeesGR_SOS. And they’re filling the gap left by an overwhelmed and beleaguered government unable to address the growing migrant crisis.
These Afghan asylum seekers have stopped in Pedion tou Areos to rest for what they hope will be as little as two to three days, although many have been there for 10 or more. They are all preparing for their journey north, through the rest of Greece and on to other European countries where they’d prefer to settle and restart their lives. Upon first count in early July, 80 people occupied a few small tents. Last week, that number reached 400. It's hot — temperatures have reached 99 degrees in Athens in recent days. There are two working toilets. Most of these refugees are families; half are children.
The team of activists are mostly organized by a growing Occupy-like group called the Solidarity Movement, which stems from a group of young, political, leftist and anti-fascist activists, some communist. Over the past few years, the movement has grown to include ordinary people with regular jobs who never used to engage in political organizing, but now feel an impulse to help Greece through this dark period. It now runs over 400 groups that help homeless and poor refugees and Greeks around the country, including a number of free health clinics for the millions of unemployed residents who lost free healthcare due to austerity measures in 2011.
This Tweet reads "The solidarity clinic is ready."
And this image is captioned "The children draw in #pedion_areos."
Movement members have been collecting aid for Pedion tou Areos relief and sharing photos of their struggles via social media for weeks. They refused an interview with PRI, not wanting one person to speak on behalf of the entire collective — but they did issue a statement which points a finger at the governments of Greece and Europe: “[These are] people, haunted by wars and poverty, desperate, caught within the internal walls of Europe, helpless and persecuted by the Greek and European authorities...A humanitarian crisis is unfolding in the Pedio Areos park. The indifference of the authorities is a crime.”
Anastasios Yfantis is a social worker and project coordinator for the Athens chapter of the international NGO Doctors of the World, who works alongside the Solidarity Movement to help these refugees. He and his team visit the group in Pedion tou Areos daily to offer them basic medical care, sleeping bags, water and counseling, and to try to convince them to apply for asylum in Greece. If they agree, Yfantis can place them in a more hygienic Athens facility and give them legal support, medical care and education. But the majority, he said, refuse.
Some have already paid traffickers for the transfer to a specific country, like Germany. Others want access to a better labor market than Greece has, as the country faces its own skyrocketing unemployment rates. Some, especially those with medical problems, are looking for stronger social welfare systems that will give them better benefits than Greece can. Some are en route to a country that speaks a language they know, or is the home of distant relatives.
“We try to explain the risk of continuing on,” said Yfantis. “Nothing is guaranteed for them. It's very difficult.”
For decades, Greece has been a European entry point for migrants from Africa and the Middle East trying to escape poverty and violence at home. But over the past six months, coinciding with its own major economic and political crisis, the small country has seen its number of refugees quadruple in size — over 77,000 have arrived on the shores of Greece since January. More than 1,000 refugees enter Athens per day.
Yfantis sees a system incapable of caring for this many refugees in an organized, competent way. In 2011 Greece did pass a law to establish a functioning asylum and migration management system. Over the years it was partially implemented, but gaps remained. So this year, when the volume of refugees grew, the system was totally unprepared. It’s hard for Yfantis to imagine these big systemic changes happening now, considering how quickly the problem has grown.
“Right now, we have a lack of well trained personnel, a lack of funding, a lack of management and organization between sectors, and we missed the train implementing the law,” Yfantis says. “And now, look: we have this major situation with minors and newborn babies in the park, with no scheduled medical provisions. This is very difficult. It’s a crisis.”
It doesn’t help that Pedion tou Areos has become known as a seedy park in recent years. What once were ponds have turned to trash piles, what once was green grass is now straw. Homeless drug users and sex workers roam freely at night.
“This is not a good place for [the migrants],” he told PRI. “It’s unsafe. It's an open park without security, without hygienic conditions. It’s a bad place for families and children to stay at night.”
Ultimately, Pedion tou Areos is a very small camp in relation to some of the others that have popped up to host displaced refugees on their journey north. Kara Tepe on the island of Lesvos, where most of the boats that survive first reach shore, holds about 3,000 migrants. Idomeni, on the northern border, is where refugees wait for border openings or transit permits to cross Macedonia on their journey north. That small region is home to another 2,000 migrants and growing.
Last Wednesday, Deputy Athens Mayor Antonis Kafetzopoulos told Greek newspaper Kathimerini, “We need an immediate emergency plan” for Pedion tou Areos. The municipality is currently looking for state-owned campsites or military bases outside the city to house the refugees. After all, it’s still August — in Greece, that means it’s only getting hotter.
Update: This article originally referred to the Solidarity Movement members helping the refugees in Pedion tou Areos park as “volunteers.” Several people engaged in this work contacted us after the article was published to say that they don’t consider themselves “volunteers,” but rather as activists, as they felt the term “volunteer” was too passive and temporary in connotation. Also, there was an issue of translation. The term “volunteer” implies helping a state run project in Greece, which only added to the confusion as some participants in the Solidarity Movement members identify as anarchists. We have changed the term “volunteer” to “activist” throughout as we consider that to be a more accurate representation of both what they do and how they seem themselves.