On the Margins of Europe: Greece’s Vulnerable Peoples

Socioeconomic integration is the ultimate goal for refugees. After escaping persecution, refugees hope to start their lives anew in host countries. Yet integration remains elusive where economic opportunities are scarce. In the absence of legal employment, refugees enter a cycle of aid dependency or turn to the shadow economy. In the shadow economy, trafficking and unregulated work replace legal travel and labor.

This chapter discusses the illicit ventures that occur on the margins of Europe. I interviewed Tilahun, a 25-year-old Ethiopian refugee who was in-between jobs when we met in late December. Tilahun described to me the difficult job market for refugees in Athens. Later, I interviewed a Kurdish-Syrian refugee who revealed the prices that smugglers charge at various points in the migratory route. The accompanying photographs in this chapter are mostly taken in Eleonas Camp in Athens and Skaramagas Camp in central Greece.

Above: Two Iranian refugees wait to be allocated to available containers by living in tents outside Eleonas Camp.

Greek law allows asylum-seekers to be legally employed after they’ve filed an asylum application. Yet all of my interview subjects, including those whose stories I have not published, were not regularly employed at the time of my interviews (or they chose not to disclose to me the source of their income). Beyond my subjects, I met refugees who worked in food service, translation, and cultural mediation during my two trips to Greece. I also encountered refugees who peddled trinkets like magazines and tissue packets on the street or established grocery stands, food stalls, and barbershops inside or near camps. My fellow volunteers and I regularly dined at a falafel stand at Ritsona Syrian Refugee Camp for lunch. Salaried employment, peddling, and small business ownership are legal avenues for refugees to earn a living.

Above: A roadside fruit and vegetable stand outside Malakasa Camp.

When it came to the shadow economy, my interview subjects mentioned two well-known informal markets. The first of these markets was the transnational and extrajudicial movement of people—human trafficking. The second was unregulated employment, which I will define as the irregular or unreported employment of refugees, for rates often below minimum wage. In the case of human trafficking, smugglers help asylum-seekers and migrants reach destinations by either forging documents so that individuals can pretend to have legitimate visas, or smugglers physically transport individuals through illicit routes. I’ve encountered refugees who have used either used smugglers in the past or who seek smugglers in Athens after exhausting all legal avenues of leaving Greece.

Human trafficking is profitable. A refugee from Syria told me that smugglers charge approximately $6,000 to transport a person from Syrian Kurdistan to Athens. It’s then €6,000 to travel from Athens to London by hiding on a ship’s produce freezer or underneath a truck above the truck’s tires. Hiding in either location can prove fatal. Alternatively, a migrant in Athens can purchase fake documents to board a legitimate form of transportation, such as a plane. Counterfeit ID can either be forged or real IDs stolen from European nationals who resemble migrants. My source mentioned that he’s even heard of tourists selling their passports to smugglers. At Acharnon Street and Omonia Square in Athens, a national from an EU country can trade in their passport for €3,000. After a migrant who has assumed the tourist’s identity uses the tourist’s passport to leave Greece, the tourist would then report their passport as lost or stolen at their embassy. For migrants who can pay their way out of a country, the trade-off is trusting to follow a smuggler or trusting the quality of fake papers.

“Babaji only has 5 fingers but works as if he has 15.”

An Ethiopian refugee on his Pakistani friend’s work ethic.

Above: A Pakistani man shows me the fingers he lost to frostbite while crossing Turkey. His asylum application had been rejected twice by Greece. Pakistanis are often considered economic migrants rather than refugees due to Pakistan’s relative political stability.

An Ethiopian resident of Eleonas Camp addresses the man as “babaji”, a respectful title meaning “father” in Urdu. Babaji sifts through garbage dumps to look for cardboard to sell to recyclers. Each month he sends remittances home to his wife and children in Pakistan.

At each step in human trafficking, the risk of detection is great. To deter the business of smugglers and to stem migration to Greece, the EU-Turkey Deal came into effect in March 2016. Under the deal, migrants who arrive irregularly to the Greek islands can be deported to Turkey without appeal. Since most migrants arrive in Greece without having been issued a prior visa, the EU-Turkey Deal has deterred migrant flows into Greece by 176% between February and March 2016. The refugee from Syria who spoke to me about the costs of smuggling laments the EU-Turkey Deal. He had crossed from Turkey to Greece in late 2016 after the signing of the deal. He confessed that he wishes he had left Syria earlier when European border inspections were less stringent.

The next informal market I learned about was unregulated labor. During my second week in Athens, I reconnected with Tilahun, a Christian Orthodox Ethiopian refugee in his mid-twenties. Like my other interview subjects in Athens, I first met Tilahun in Leros. Tilahun showed me how difficult it was to secure long-term employment as a refugee in Athens. Tilahun fled his home in East Shewa, a zone adjacent to the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, when a bullet grazed the side of his head at a beach party. Tilahun told me his father opposed the incumbent government in Ethiopia, which had held power since 1991. He had not seen his father in over two years after cutting communication to protect his family. To this day, Tilahun fears being tracked by Ethiopian government agents who search for and kidnap Ethiopian political refugees in Europe.

Above: An Ethiopian refugee watches a soccer game as the sun sets above Eleonas Camp.

Tilahun arrived on Leros after spending three months in Turkey. He came to Leros by boat with 36 others and, when landing, managed to save a girl from falling into the water. Between landing and helping the young girl climb the rocks of the shore, Tilahun lost his bags. Another migrant whispered to Tilahun at registration that he should report an age younger than his actual age. Tilahun would spend five months in Leros, where he would receive a medical visa because of a prior leg injury. He left Leros for Athens in July after being granted asylum for six months in Greece. At the time we reconnected, Tilahun was preparing to interview for a pan-European travel visa.

During his first month in Athens, Tilahun lived in Eleonas Camp. He then found others to rent an apartment with in the African quarters of Athens. There is a large African population in Athens residing in the area surrounding Amerikis Square bordered by Kallifrona Street to the north and Victoria Square to the south. Tilahun shares a two-bedroom apartment with five others, all of whom are unemployed. With three people sleeping in each bedroom, Tilahun laughs that he wakes up in the middle of the night to open a window for fresh air.

Tilahun worked what jobs he could find. Three days before we had met, Tilahun told me he was laid off from a cleaning company where he had been working for three months. He was dismissed over the phone by his supervisor the morning before his scheduled shift. I knew another Ethiopian refugee, a mutual friend of Tilahun’s and I, who worked as a cleaner for €3 an hour. Tilahun showed some of his workplaces. From Syntagma Square where we reunited, Tilahun and I walked to Monastiraki Square. Amidst the crowds of holiday shoppers at Monastiraki, Tilahun pointed out a clothing store under repair. A construction company had contracted Tilahun to work on the store for a week before he found his latest job as a cleaner. The two of us then travelled to Exarcheia, where Tilahun showed me a school he had cleaned. One of his former co-workers recognized him in the schoolyard and waved. Despite his co-workers’ friendliness, Tilahun noted the racism in Greece. When Tilahun and I were waiting for a train at a metro station, Tilahun explained that even on crowded buses, others would avoid sitting on an empty seat beside him. Tilahun’s story captures the financial and social insecurity of refugees in Greece.

“We sleep and smoke and sleep some more.”

An Afghan refugee’s reply to what he does in a day in Malakasa Camp.

Above: Two men from Afghanistan stand in a street in Malakasa Camp after nightfall.

“Why would you come to Greece to smoke? The stuff was better in your own country.”

An Ethiopian refugee criticizing Iranian refugees who abuse marijuana. According to him, refugees who are addicted to substances “are not in the mindset to live. They are still in the mindset of war”.

Beyond human trafficking and the lack of labor protection for refugees, I discovered that even NGOs participate in Greece’s shadow economy. I learned how NGO employees, such as doctors and housing managers, took advantage of the refugee crisis. Through one of my contacts, I learned that doctors are bribed to see patients more quickly or to forge medical documents. Temporary free housing is an example of a service that requires medical documentation. The Greek government and EU-funded NGOs provide apartments with 6-months free rent for vulnerable refugees or large families. Those with health and psychological conditions are considered vulnerable and thus would be eligible for subsidized housing. Not only can physicians be bribed to provide proof of medical conditions for free accommodation—NGO employees can also abuse the welfare system. A source accused NGO housing managers of colluding with landlords to inflate the value of rent. An NGO’s financial department would then allocate more taxpayer or donor revenues to cover the increased rent, leaving the housing managers and landlords to pocket the difference between the reported cost of rent and the rent charged to refugees. Smugglers, employers, doctors, and housing managers participate in Greece’s shadow economy, proving the complexity of accountable service delivery in a country with weakened institutions. In the wake of a decades-long financial crisis, Greece’s poverty pushes individuals to exploit the humanitarian effort.

As corruption detracts from humanitarian relief in Greece, it appears that the end of donor interest in the European refugee crisis is nigh. In June 2017, when I was volunteering in Leros, my team coordinator announced during a volunteers’ meeting that the European Union was pulling support of NGOs on the Greek islands. By transferring the responsibility of refugees from EU-funded NGOs to the Greek government, the EU attempted to give greater autonomy to the Greek government while lessening the EU budget burden. My team coordinator had kept a list of NGOs who were active in Leros in her notebook. I noticed beside some of the NGO names were the word “leaving”. As the European refugee crisis continues, donors are withdrawing support for humanitarian initiatives and looking for longer-term development solutions.

To me, the waste of human potential is the biggest headline of both the Syrian and European refugee crises. Although the harrowing sea voyages and border crossings that refugees undertake is newsworthy, the greatest tragedy I witnessed in Greece and Lebanon is how refugees languish for months on end. If refugee camps bestow basic physiological needs, they fail to provide dignity. Refugee camps are the great equalizer that flattens social strata. In my journey, I met individuals who told me they were architects, chefs, and students “before the war”. These identities were always before departure. Now, first and foremost, a person is reduced to a legal status. In Athens, an Iranian student I met through a mutual friend told me that if I needed any help, I could reach out to him, “even though” he was “just a refugee”. When I saw a young man in Athens idly chatting to friends or scrolling through a phone, I couldn’t help thinking to myself that here was someone’s son or someone’s brother. Without school or work for most, refugees my age in Greece are paralyzed between adolescence and adulthood.

Above: Boys play under a lamppost in Eleonas Camp in Athens. Education for refugee children prevents a “lost generation” of students who have had education disrupted by war.

Barriers to socioeconomic integration exacerbate the periphery status of refugees in society. Through talking with my refugee friends, I sense that young refugees have similar goals to myself: to graduate university, to find a job, and to “live a normal life” in the words of Jamil. It is from my interactions with refugees that I believe a solution to refugee crises is a change in perception. I know refugees to be resourceful under duress. When I look around my classmates, I wonder what we would do if our university was bombed. I imagine what it’s like to leave behind our families to cross a sea to a country where the people speak different languages and are unwelcoming. If on the brink of unemployment and homelessness, would we too try to smuggle our way out? How many of us would turn to the shadow economy? I wonder if the failure to integrate refugees is borne out of a failure of the imagination. As an immigrant myself, I wanted nothing less than to feel at home in alien countries. My parents and I contributed to our host countries so that we could improve our quality of life. What stops refugees from doing the same, at least temporarily before it’s possible to return home?

I end my thesis with a call to action to governments and media. To mitigate aid dependency, governments must strengthen formal institutions such as regulated employment and education. The greatest help that refugees can receive is access to stable livelihoods. Formal employment contributes to the economy of a host country while reducing the shadow economy where refugees face personal and financial danger. The media can support the integration of refugees by changing the refugee narrative. If refugees are portrayed as security risks or welfare abusers at worst, and sympathetic victims at best, refugees should instead be reported in their full capacity as individuals. If more of us can understand refugees as not what they went through, but as who they were and who they may still become, the narrative changes to empowerment and empathy.


Works Cited:

Alexandridis, Theodoros. “Faces of Romani Statelesnness in Greece.” European Roma Rights Centre, http://www.errc.org/roma-rights-journal/faces-of-romani-statelessness-in-greece.

Greece, The President of the Hellenic Republic. “Law 4375.” 3 Apr. 2016. Refworld, http://www.refworld.org/pdfid/573ad4cb4.pdf.

Refugees & Migrants Sea Arrivals in Europe. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Dec. 2016, data2.unhcr.org/ar/documents/download/53447.

“Roma.” The Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 17 Nov. 2017, http://www.britannica.com/topic/Rom.

Spitalszky, Andrea. “Denial and Denigration: How Discrimination Feeds Statelessness.” European Network on Statelessness, Minority Rights Group International, 31 Oct. 2017, http://www.statelessness.eu/blog/denial-and-denigration-how-discrimination-feeds-statelessness.