About 200 Syrian refugees have been protesting night and day for the past week in front of the parliament building in Athens. They are demanding that the Greek government give refugees and asylum seekers a warmer reception: most of them get no aid for food, housing or medical costs. On Monday, the protesters began a hunger strike in a desperate plea to make their voices heard.
Syrian refugees protesting in front of the Greek parliament. Photo by Yannis Baboulias/Precarious Europe.
With its Mediterranean border, Greece, like Italy and Spain, is a popular point of entry for Syrians seeking refuge in the European Union. The number of refugees in Greece went up by 223% between early 2013 and early 2014, according to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). An estimated 8,000 refugees entered Greece in 2013 compared to almost 29,000 in the first 10 months of 2014; the large majority of them are Syrian. The refugees are a strain for a country caught up in economic crisis like Greece, whose government would like to see other European countries help with this burden.
Until June 2013, the Greek asylum system was so dysfunctional that practically no one obtained asylum. Since then, the system has been reformed and the number of positive responses for Syrian asylum claims is now at 99.3%, according to official figures. But few refugees actually make asylum claims because, if they obtain this status in Greece, they aren’t allowed to live in another European country — unless they have a close family member there and can ask for family reunification.
Young women protesting in front of the Greek parliament. Photo by Yannis Baboulias/Precarious Europe.
Many of the protesters gathered in front of the Greek parliament aren’t asking for asylum in Greece, but for decent living conditions and the possibility of obtaining documents that would let them migrate to other European countries ready to welcome them. That’s the case of our Observer, Jalal, 19, a Palestinian Syrian from Damascus.
“I don’t have much money left and there’s a good chance I’ll end up in the street”
I arrived in a boat from Turkey. My brother, my sister and I paid a trafficker 1,250 euros to get to Greece. I have been here for three months. My brother and sister are now in Norway. The two of them paid 9,000 euros to get there. I wasn’t able to go. The trafficker, a Syrian that we met in a café in Greece, was asking for too much money. So I stayed alone in Athens. I live in a hotel with other Syrian refugees. But I don’t have much money left and there’s a good chance I’ll end up in the street like many other Syrians here.
A child playing amid the protest in front of the Greek parliament. Photo by Yannis Baboulias/Precarious Europe.
Some Syrian refugees claimed asylum two years ago. They have access to a little something in terms of benefits. Some of these families were able to get housing and medical assistance but once they are granted official refugee status, they will lose these rights. And there are no jobs in Greece. So what are they supposed to do next? I personally don’t want to be a refugee in Greece. I want to get to Norway and claim asylum there. That is another of our demands – we’d like the Greek government to let us to go to other European countries where we’d have the possibility of better living conditions. I have a high school diploma. I want to be able to study and then work. I didn’t leave a war-torn country to live in destitution.
We hope that the government will listen to us. At first, we were too scared to protest. But we conquered our fear. Each day, more people join us. Greek citizens bring us food and blankets. We have been on hunger strike since Monday morning. Only the children eat. If we feel really bad, we drink water with a bit of sugar diluted in it. Four people went to the hospital on Monday. It’s hard, but we are going to stay. And I think that people are beginning to take notice. Organisations like the UNHCR came to find out more about our demands. Members of Greek opposition parties, especially the leftist party Syriza, also gave us support. It’s a good sign!
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Dorothée Myriam Kellou (@Dorakellou).