Migrants, stuck in limbo, camp out in Patras

PATRAS, Greece — Scattered in the shade of an olive grove lie the remains of small encampments: blackened pots on the stamped out remains of fires, makeshift huts of plastic sheeting, empty tins of condensed milk. Nearby, pieces of clothing have been hung out to dry on the barren winter vines.

Welcome to the “Afghan Jungle,” a Greek purgatory for undocumented migrants.

“We don’t want to stay here, in this country. There are no human rights here,” said Mahadi, a young Afghan migrant, as he sat on a sagging mattress and played with a kitten he and friends had adopted. “We want to go to Italy, but they won’t let us.”

Patras is the main Greek port for ferries sailing to Italy and undocumented migrants make their way there in hopes of catching a ride. But many are trapped in Patras for months, living rough while they try to smuggle themselves aboard trucks and shipping containers headed for Italy.

This small Greek city has been a gateway to western Europe for more than a decade. First came Kurds, then Afghanis. Now there are Africans and Roma, or gypsies, from Romania as well.

In recent years, the migrants' numbers have swelled, fueled by the war in Afghanistan and crackdowns on older human-smuggling routes across the Mediterranean from north Africa to countries like Italy and Malta. Greece has a long coastline and many islands, making its border difficult to secure. According to the Ministry of Citizen Protection, an average of between 500 and 600 undocumented migrants arrive on Greece's shores every day.

Throughout Patras now there are pockets of migrants, living on the margins of the Greek city. The Afghans live in the Jungle and in abandoned buildings. A group of Africans — mainly African Muslims from Somalia and Sudan — live in a series of abandoned railway cars. The Roma live in tents on a rubbish-strewn beach.

(The situation echoes that in Calais, France, where migrants camp while trying to sneak across the English Channel to the United Kingdom.)

Greece’s previous center-right government, which lost power in October, tried to crack down on the undocumented migrants in Patras. Police razed and burned a shanty town that at times was home to as many as 2,000 Afghanis and stepped up police patrols near the port.

Christos Karapiperis, who works with the Greek Red Cross in Patras, said there are fewer migrants there since the crackdown — maybe 400 at a time now instead of a few thousand. But the conditions under which they live are even worse than before.

“It’s worse now from a humanitarian perspective,” he said. “It’s harder for them to find a place to stay, to apply for documentation.”

Undocumented migrants in Greece are trapped in a terrible limbo. Most wash up on Greek islands in tiny boats where they are picked up by authorities and taken to detention centers. But Greece lacks enough detention centers or jails to keep people imprisoned for long and Turkey, where many of the migrants passed through on their way to Greece, has largely refused to take the migrants back despite a repatriation agreement between the two countries.

So after a few weeks or months, most are simply put on ferries to Athens with letters saying they should leave the country within a month.

Mahadi said he spent months in a squalid detention center on the island of Lesvos that was closed in November by Greece’s new government after an intense campaign by human rights activists and a series of protests by detainees. He spent a few months on the streets in Athens before making his way to Patras.

He said this month that he had been in Patras for weeks, trying to sneak aboard a boat. Those with money pay smugglers to ease the passage. Poorer migrants, like Mahadi, are forced to try more dangerous routes. They crawl into hidden spaces in parked trucks, hoping to slip through undetected.

There are few migrants in Patras who have not seen the inside of the local jail. But the police in Patras, like the authorities on Greece’s islands, have nowhere to send the migrants and no way to send them home.

Greece's new socialist government acknowledges deep problems with the country's immigration system. It has pledged to improve its human rights record by increasing the number of refugees it accepts, cracking down on abuse by police officers and easing the integration of legal immigrants and refugees. Officials also say they will stop detaining undocumented migrants in jails and will build special detention centers for them.

But the new government has also pledged to do more to protect Greece's borders. The first step toward that, said Michalis Chrysochoidis, head of the Ministry for Citizen Protection, which oversees the police and coast guard, is closing the exits from Greece — like Patras — to send a signal that Greece is no longer an easy route to other parts of Europe.

"We have decided to close the exits. There was a problem that the two main ports of Greece, Patras and Igoumenitsa, which are the main ports to Italy and Europe, were open. So we have decided to close the two ports," he said. "The message to traffickers is don't go to Greece because it's not easy for you to go to Europe."

And there are signs in Patras that this infant policy is already having an effect.

Karapiperis said there are fewer migrants in Patras now and rumors of new routes to western Europe by land, over Greece’s northern border into Macedonia.

In recent days, say Mahadi and other Afghans, the police have been trying to drive them away from the Jungle. That morning, a Saturday, the police had come at 5 a.m. and scattered the Jungle’s residents. Three days before that, a few dozen policemen surrounded the grove, arrested many of its inhabitants and tore down its plastic shelters.

“The police, they come every day now,” said Shariz, a migrant from the central Afghanistan city of Ghazni, holding up his hands together to show how other men were handcuffed and taken away.

Karapiperis said police are trying to clear the Jungle because the olive grove’s Greek owner had complained about his unwanted guests. But the Afghanis have nowhere else to go, so despite the police pressure, they keep returning.

“We just want a better life,” said Mahadi. “What have we done wrong?”