Catriona Robertson

journeys at home and abroad

Athens II

Met several groups today working with refugees. People stopped moving through Greece earlier this year when the migrant trail fizzled out: borders in the Balkans closed and Turkey agreed with the EU to prevent Syrian refugees leaving for Europe.


Spyros Rizakos of AITIMA, with some of the people who are registered there. The beautiful painting was given by a friend from Belarus to make the office welcoming. Everyone who comes to AITIMA is heard and spoken to. “People appreciate that,” he said.

This has left 50k people stranded on the mainlaind and another 10k people on the Greek islands close to Turkey. Those on the islands are not allowed on the mainland.  Camps have been set up and, I was told, range from good to very bad.

Once registered as refugees, only Syrians & Eritreans can apply to be relocated in other European countries. Iraqis also came into this category until June, but their ‘recognition rate’ (for being accepted as refugees) dropped below 75% which is the cut-off point. If refugees have family in Europe, they can apply to be reunited with them. If there are medical problems in the family it helps their case. Afghans and people from other countries have less of a chance of being recognised as refugees.

At the moment everything seems stuck. The Greek goverment is over-stretched and has poured its energies into a pre-registration scheme. Fewer people, it seems, are being registered as proper refugees as the cases build up. There is no legal aid system in Greece, so charities help guide families through the process.

If the thousands in the camps are likely to stay in Greece until they can return to their own countries, it raises questions about how they will live.  One camp now has a school which seems a positive move.  But if the camps are provided with schools, medical care, police & undertakers, they will remain in a bubble closed off from Greek life. How will children raised in this environment contribute to wider society or even know who they are? We hear the catch-all aim of ‘achieving your potential’ in relation to education & mental health. Living a life that’s worthwhile, with a bit of human dignity, is another way of putting it and it generally includes taking an active role in society – working, raising a family or being part of one, having a say in how things are.

Agency seems to be one of the attractions to British volunteers here. There’s plenty to do and less protocol. Young people are needed and are finding a sense of purpose as they help out, something they weren’t able to find back home. If this could be balanced up so that both refugees and helpers could contribute and find a sense of achievement, this would be progress.

In the meantime, the stuckness, the huge delays in processing asylum applications and the camps becoming a permanent but separate feature of Greek life is a worry to those working here.  No-one mentioned a possible end to the Syrian conflict or a marked improvement in life in Afghanistan.

Athens is to get its first purpose-built mosque since Ottoman times.  The end of WWI saw the forced repatriation of Greek Muslims to Turkey and Turkish Christians to Greece. The memory of centuries of Ottoman rule over Turkey is still live. I’m reminded of Mark Mazower’s book Salonica and the need to renegotiate our different histories, as Northern Ireland is beginning to do, if we’re to find peace.

I thought I might miss the Parthenon altogether, but I found it – at a distance, viewed from the astonishing Acropolis Museum. Cultural transmission is strong if someone brought up in the Scottish highlands feels quite at home surrounded by porticos, pediments and doric columns. More lamb and potatoes this evening, but cooked in paper parcels in the oven with guitar, bouzouki and those soft Greek songs performed live in the restaurant.

2 comments on “Athens II

  1. Anne McLintic Smith
    20 August 2016

    Thank you for highlighting this “stuckness” and the danger for refugees of being kept separate. Thank God for open-hearted, hard-working people like the ones you’ve been meeting. And for music. And for lamb!

    • Catriona Robertson
      9 October 2016

      Thanks Anne – it was an extraordinary trip and I think of the people I met often. I never completed jotting down my thoughts here but the appalling circumstances in Aleppo makes one want to open up a Red Sea.

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This entry was posted on 29 August 2016 by in Greece, Syria, Turkey and tagged .
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