Life in the shadows: meet the refugees stranded in Greece’s notorious Softex camp
On a late September morning, the grounds of Softex refugee camp – at an abandoned toilet-paper plant a few miles west of Thessaloniki – are quiet and relatively well-kept. Each family has their own tent. Adults sit at plastic tables chatting over tea while children play nearby. In a corner of the vast warehouse, a makeshift cafe serves coffee and espressos. Middle-aged men sell snacks, fresh fruit and vegetables out of crates on the floor.
But sit down with residents and the horrors emerge. The vast majority spent a small fortune to get to Greece and have had no income for months, if not years, so a cappuccino or a banana is often a luxury beyond their reach. Besides, they have graver problems. Since the reported rape of a pregnant 14-year-old and the sexual assault of a 10-year-old girl the previous week, Amel Al Husain has barely let her 17 and 23-year-old daughters out of sight.
“Look at my daughters,” the 44-year-old from Aleppo urges a visitor, gesturing towards two young women standing behind her in headscarves, next to the family’s tent. “At night they are afraid to leave the tent, even to go to the bathroom. Families that have young girls should be moved to a family camp. It’s not safe here. My girls are in danger. All I can do is just keep my eyes on them and hope.”
Hope is a dwindling resource for Al Husain’s camp neighbour, Sanaa Al Asman. She does her best to take care of her four children without the help of her husband, who disappeared before the family left Idlib, Syria, in 2012. In March, a tear gas assault by authorities at the troubled Idomeni camp on the Greek-Macedonian border forced her youngest child, a 6-year-old boy, to cough so hard that he injured his genitals. The gas also closed his tear ducts.
Six months later, he still needs surgery but Al Asman has no money to pay for it, to visit a doctor or even buy fresh fruit. A former farmer, she’s also sick, with low blood pressure and digestion issues because of the lack of fresh food in camp meals. The previous night she had fainted and had difficulty breathing for several hours. “Things keep getting worse and I really have no way to improve my situation,” she says, speaking slowly with great effort.
Then there’s Abdelnasser. The 32-year-old truck driver from Deir Al Zour is rail-thin, wears old, shabby clothing and is missing all but one of his top row of teeth. He and his wife Fatin have been living in refugee camps for more than four years. Two months ago, their three-year-old daughter Elisar became ill with a high fever. Her parents took her to the camp’s Red Cross medics, who gave them cold medicine.
On the third day, with her fever peaking, the medics finally called an ambulance. At the hospital her condition improved and she came home. But she then had difficulty seeing out of her left eye, which had become lazy. Her parents took her to a specialist, who told them that the damage may be permanent. To top if off, the European Union relocation process may ultimately send Abdelnasser to a different country than his ailing mother and bed-ridden brother. “If they did this, we wouldn’t go,” he says, as Elisar climbs onto his lap, wearing a pink dress and with a white patch of gauze over her left eye. He now wishes he’d never left Turkey. “Coming to Europe was a big mistake. I thought there was a humanity in Europe but now I just don’t think human life is all that valuable here.”
Not since the Second World War have so many people been displaced from their homes – more than 65 million, according to United Nations figures, including more than 10m Syrians (4.8m of whom are refugees). Outside Turkey (3m refugees), Lebanon (1.6m) and Jordan (800,000), no country has shouldered more of the burden than Greece, even as it struggles to emerge from years of financial and political crisis. More than a million migrants have passed through Greece on their way to Europe in the past few years.
But that easy passage ended in March, with the advent of the EU-Turkey deal to halt the flow of refugees. By May, the new arrivals had all but stopped. Now the world seems to think the refugee crisis has ended. But it has only been papered over.
“We are at a point where things are manageable,” said alternate minister for migration policy, Yiannis Mouzalas, earlier this month. “One million people passed from Greece and 60,000 are still here and we did not have a disease outbreak or an epidemic ... Thirty thousand children have been vaccinated and are starting to go to school.”
The day migrant children started attending Greek schools, locals turned out to protest across the country; in one town near Thessaloniki, parents padlocked the school gate to keep the refugee children out. Tensions between locals and migrants are highest on the Aegean islands, where about 16,000 refugees are squeezed into camps built for half that many people.
On Chios, locals have protested and, earlier this year, clashed with migrants at the island’s port. Migrants have set fires at overcrowded camps on both Chios and Lesbos, leading to evacuations.
Just this week, several dozen migrants at the Moria camp on Lesbos threw rocks and burning blankets at the offices of the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) team stationed at the camp. EASO halted asylum processing at Moria in order to evaluate security.
Odysseas Voudouris, Greece’s former general secretary for migrants at the Interior Ministry, resigned in September, in protest at what he portrayed as Athens’ mishandling of the camps.
Softex opened in late May, just after the closure of Idomeni, and soon overflowed with 1,800 residents. Due to the brutal summer conditions – swirling heat, swarms of mosquitos and steady criminal activity – many soon left, to find their own housing or a way into Bulgaria or back to Turkey.
Residents admit that conditions have improved: with fewer residents, people have more space; the heat has subsided; and mosquito nets were brought in, along with fresh foods, for purchase.
Like most other Greek camps, the residents are free to come and go. But most have no money and are unable to legally cross any borders. Here they have free food, shelter and a modicum of healthcare. So they stay, hoping to be welcomed by a European state, to gain asylum in Greece, or even to be sent back, to Turkey or their home country.
In an email interview, Giorgos Kyritsis, the Greek government’s refugee coordinator, could not confirm any rapes or sexual assaults at Softex. But he said that it was the country’s worst camp in terms of minor crimes.
At Softex, women generally maintain the family tent, watch children and cook meals, while the men are left idle. Their challenge is more mental than physical: living in the middle of nowhere, dealing with the daily uncertainty of waiting for a relocation or asylum interview – most have waited six to eight months – amid the creeping sense that the world has abandoned them.
In mid-October, a car passing another camp a few miles from Softex struck a Syrian-Kurd refugee and her 10-year-old son. Police refused to take them to hospital in their car. The ambulance was late to arrive and both died, sparking a riot at the camp.
Softex residents say fights between men of different nationalities are a daily occurrence. Younger men, without family and hungry for any opportunity, are easy prey for local gangs and mafia and end up stealing or selling drugs.
The nearby train station makes Softex a smuggling hotspot, says Khalid, an Iraqi refugee and activist with Mobile Info Team, which provides legal information to refugees. Khalid did not disclose his surname because he believes he is in danger.
Few camp residents were surprised when police found two kilograms of marijuana in the Thessaloniki apartment of three young male refugees recently charged with sexually assaulting a local college student.
An October report from the watchdog group Amnesty International pointed to poor security in Greek camps and a lack of heating as winter approached, and stressed that residents’ lives were about to worsen.
Indeed, migrant arrivals on the Aegean islands have ticked back up, to about 1,000 per month. Land crossings from Turkey have increased as well. There’s also the looming closure of Ellinikon: Athens’s old abandoned airport where about 4,000 refugees have lived for more than a year. It will soon be redeveloped into a luxury beach resort. And if the EU-Turkey deal were to collapse, as many fear, Greece would likely be overwhelmed by as many as a million new arrivals.
This desperation could have been avoided. In September 2015, as refugees streamed into Greece and Italy, EU leaders pledged to accept and relocate 160,000 of them. As of mid-October the bloc had welcomed just more than 6,000 (4,716 from Greece), or less than four per cent of the pledged total.
One early issue was an overwhelmed asylum system. But EASO now has 182 workers (experts, staff and interpreters) in Greece, compared with 55 in March, according to EASO’s head of communications, Jean-Pierre Schembri. And there are signs that they are making an impact.
One Softex resident said his Syrian friend was resettled in Ireland one month after his relocation interview. This marked a vast improvement on the usual wait of four months, according to Khalid, the Iraqi refugee with Mobile Info Team.
The bigger problem is that the West has pulled the welcome mat. Most Balkan states closed their borders 10 months ago. Back in September, rich-nation leaders gathered for a one-day refugee summit in New York City. Attendees promised up to US$4.5 billion (Dh16.5 billion) in aid and offered the vague outlines of an expanded resettlement plan that would take effect almost two years from now. The UAE agreed to take in 15,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years.
Early this month, Austria’s foreign minister, Sebastian Kurz, suggested the EU should scrap the “unrealistic” relocation plan. Days later, Germany’s interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, said asylum seekers who reached the EU via Greece should be sent back there.
That same week the EU made a deal with Kabul to send tens of thousands of Afghan migrants home from Europe – despite an intensifying conflict in Afghanistan. The EU recently launched a border guard force – 1,000 troops, with 1,500 reserves – to be dispatched as needed to curb refugee arrivals.
Kyritsis says the government may soon shift some of the migrants on the islands to the mainland, open new camps in central and southern Greece, and rent apartment blocks for them in several cities.
About 7,000 migrants in Greece are ready and awaiting relocation, according to Kyritsis, but EU states have yet to accept them. Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic have outright refused to accept refugees for relocation, reneging on their pledge.
Some observers believe that the EU states that are accepting new arrivals have started to show a preference for more educated migrants, disdaining the vulnerable cases likely to tax their system.
If this were true, Al Asman, an ailing, ageing farmer with no husband and four children, would be unlikely to find greener pastures any time soon.
“I’m done with being afraid,” she says, mulling the possibility of more months at Softex. “I don’t want to say that Europe has failed, because I do still have some hope that things will improve. But since I’ve been here I’ve been very, very disappointed.”
David Lepeska is a freelance writer who contributes to The New York Times, The Guardian, Foreign Affairs and other outlets.