For thousands of refugees, the Mediterranean Sea is the last obstacle. On distant shores lies Greece, a member of the European Union and a center for displaced persons. In 2016 alone, over 50,000 refugees applied for asylum status in Greece. Thousands more are sure to have joined their ranks since then. Hundreds drown in capsized vessels and makeshift rafts every year — a grim testament to the hardships many refugees are willing to endure for the chance at a better life.
However, reaching Greece is rarely the end of the hardship for asylum-seekers. While there, they must compete with thousands of other refugees for citizenship or asylum status, live in refugee camps on the border and face persecution from the locals. The process for being granted asylum is a lengthy one and refugees are sometimes “stuck in line” for many months.
For many, Greece is not the end goal — and the process of moving toward their final destination is even longer.
Many factors can lead to an individual or family leaving their home and seeking asylum. In many instances, war or civil conflict — particularly in areas of Africa and the Middle East — pushes thousands in a mass exodus, fleeing for their lives. In other cases, natural disasters — from tsunamis to earthquakes — destroy homes and push thousands into neighboring states. In some cases, living conditions within a country are poor enough to necessitate a family fleeing for a better life elsewhere.
Whatever the cause, thousands of individuals and families are uprooted every year and must use unreliable and illegal means to reach their destination. Some rely on human smugglers to get them across national borders, which can be a perilous proposition. Others take it upon themselves to cross national borders, risking arrest upon arrival. Many nations are bordered with large rivers or, as in the case of Greece, a sea, making the trip across an ordeal unto itself.
The vast majority of refugees come from countries experiencing civil conflict: particularly Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Pakistan and Turkey have taken in millions of refugees. Syria, the country with the single largest population of refugees to date, borders the Mediterranean and sees hundreds of thousands of its citizens fleeing across the sea to Greece.
Refugees in Greece
Greece is a particularly desirable destination for many refugees. It is part of the EU and the single highest donor to international aid and relief funds. It is the closest European state to many of the refugee areas. It is often believed that Greece also boasts a developed refugee infrastructure as compared to many neighboring countries, whose camps are homes to disease and poor living conditions. In reality, Grecian refugee camps suffer from the same afflictions as others around the world.
Inside a refugee camp, asylum-seekers live in overcrowded and underfunded “cities” comprised of tents and makeshift shelters. Families must contend with one another to secure food and clean water, with showering or bathing a rare luxury. Plumbing is practically unheard of, with camps in Lesbos — the largest center for refugees in Greece — usually relying on pit latrines dug into the ground. Fences surround the compounds, keeping the refugees from mingling with the rest of the population.
These conditions lead to a sense of inferiority on the part of many asylum-seekers, which is not necessarily a coincidence. Refugees coming to any developed state will face persecution at the hands of the local population, many of whom see them as a drain on the economy. Keeping human beings in caged areas with improper plumbing, no hot water, and the unreliable food is dehumanizing in a fundamental way and is often coupled with ignorant scorn from the locals.
Refugees must survive these appalling conditions while waiting for their paperwork. The application is slated to be examined within six months of applying. However, special provisions allow for up to 12 additional months in waiting time before the government processes their papers. For many refugees, this time can stretch into years, as papers are misplaced or neglected often. For families fleeing civil war, traveling hundreds or thousands of miles in the process, the suffering never seems to end.
What Greece is experiencing today can be justifiably deemed a crisis. Tens of thousands of men, women and children all live near population centers, but within fenced districts, surviving on food rations and poor infrastructure. Without additional outside funding and a significant change in mindset in Greece and beyond, many of the refugees won’t survive long enough to make it through the application process.
For these people, the apparent indifference of the world to the conditions in Greece, and the people making a temporary home there must truly be a bitter revelation.