Me? No, I have papers!” the man yells when I ask him his name.
He is young, tall, and stout, dressed in a worn black bomber jacket and a pair of baggy corduroys, his hands covered by the scruffy grey gloves he uses to root through garbage bags.
I have run into him in Plato’s Academy, the vicinity of the philosopher’s storied school, now an Athens district filled with working-class flats and African migrants pushing carts full of trash. Probing his pockets to find papers he does not eventually produce, the man tells me only his first name: Blaise. Forty-three, he is an immigrant from Côte d’Ivoire—an illegal immigrant, it seems, given how he protests too much. “Me, Christian! Samaris good! I love Greece! Samaris good!”
I was talking to Blaise right before Greek prime minister Antonis Samaras was booted out of office in January. The national elections brought to power a leftist government, which immediately began demanding a new deal for Greece in repaying its international loans. Since the global financial crisis struck in 2008, Greece has been beset with double-digit unemployment and shriveling industry, a downturn deepened by tough loan terms that have required painful and abrupt economic reforms. The drama has heightened in recent weeks: Greece is currently negotiating with the International Monetary Fund and European creditors over the payment arrangements for its loans, which the new government claims needs to be relaxed in order for Greece to avoid defaulting on those loans and abandoning the Euro for its old drachma currency—an increasingly likely scenario. If this were to happen, rampant inflation and a banking crisis would ensue, experts say.
Throughout the ongoing financial turmoil, however, migrants have continued to come to Greece. Indeed, the EU’s border management agency says that Europe-bound migrants are increasingly choosing to go through Turkey and Greece rather than embarking from various northern African nations, which nowadays are seen as riskier launching points. According to the United Nations, so far this year 48,000 refugees and migrants have entered Greece—almost half of those who have come to Europe—a running total that already far outstrips the national figure for the entire previous year. Over the past several months, record numbers have landed on the shores of the country’s Aegean islands in rubber dinghies and wooden boats: half of the six hundred migrants who now arrive in Greece every day come to the island of Lesvos alone.
While the bulk of Greece’s immigrants in the nineties and aughts came from the Balkans, today they increasingly hail from countries outside Europe. A fifth now come from Africa, and more than half from Asia—mainly from war zones like Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. These latest waves of new arrivals have stoked xenophobic attitudes among native Greeks already anxious about the economy. Meanwhile, those migrants lucky to survive the often treacherous overseas journey to Greece find themselves struggling once here. African migrants like Blaise—whose continent is associated with poverty, war, and disease in the minds of many Greeks—encounter an economy and society that continually tells them it doesn’t much care for them.
Compared to some other countries in Europe—for example, Denmark, Switzerland, and Slovakia—Greece is less strict in accepting immigrants and asylum seekers from overseas. But clearly the supply of legal opportunities to move to Europe cannot match the demand, because every year an estimated 55,000 African migrants are smuggled in. Transnational criminal syndicates often get them here, shipping human beings across borders just like they do weapons and drugs.
Smuggling Africans is big business—estimated at $150 million a year—and poor immigrants seeking better economic opportunities or escaping violence or repression at home are willing to pay a great deal for a one-way ticket to Europe. For Blaise, the trip from his Ivorian hometown of Duékoué to Athens cost him 7,000 euros. In his case, the smugglers upheld their end of the bargain; other would-be immigrants wind up as sexual slaves or forced laborers, stealthily shunted through the same global networks by profit-hungry human traffickers.
The journey poses great risks, too. According to a report by the International Organization for Migration, over 22,000 migrants have died trying to cross the Mediterranean since 2000. Last year set a record for the number of deaths, which exceeded 3,000. This year’s tally will handily surpass it: in just the first four months of 2015, an estimated 1,770 migrants died. In April, at least five boats carrying migrants sank during the Mediterranean crossing, killing 1,200. The shocking death toll prompted a European Union summit later that month, where the continent’s leaders resolved to increase the number of ships patrolling the sea, ramp up law-enforcement efforts to quash human trafficking, and assist developing countries in tightening their borders.
As great as the risks are, the pressures pushing African migrants to cross over to Europe appear to be greater. While countries like China and India build a vibrant new middle class, almost half of Africans continue to live on less than a $1.25 a day, the World Bank’s threshold for extreme poverty. Although the continent possesses a wealth of oil, minerals, and other natural resources, corrupt government officials and unchecked multinational corporations have hoarded that wealth and left the populations of many African countries unemployed and desperate. And even as economic forecasts predict continued economic growth in Africa as a whole in the years ahead, water and food shortages, infectious diseases, climate change, and violent extremism pose existential threats to numerous communities.
I ask Blaise about what brought him to Greece. Blaise can’t speak much Greek, so we chat in French, and eventually I persuade him to offer up some details about his personal background. Visibly nervous, he tells me he left behind his fourteen-year-old daughter in Côte d’Ivoire. He feels he had no choice. A disputed presidential election in his country sparked a civil war in 2010 pitting the soldiers of Alassane Ouattara, the election’s internationally recognized victor, against those of Laurent Gbagbo, the incumbent president. During the conflict, military forces on both sides allegedly killed and raped hundreds of civilians. When we start talking about the violence that brought him to Greece, Blaise becomes increasingly agitated. “Ouattara killed my father and mother!” he finally blurts out, raising his gloved hands to the sky.
The war ended just a year later—with Gbagbo defeated, captured, and brought before the Hague’s International Criminal Court to stand trial for crimes against humanity—but Blaise remains in Greece, hustling to survive on the streets. Like other African migrants, he sells the tin and plastic he picks out of trash cans to scrapyards. He eats at Catholic soup kitchens during the day, sleeping in parks or vacant buildings at night. And he watches, ever vigilantly, for the police. When I pull out a camera to snap his picture, Blaise lowers his cap and poses from behind—no face, please. He can’t take any chances.
“No police, Samaris good!”—he kneels—“Greece good, Samaris good!”
Many African migrants are smuggled into Greece from Turkey, crossing the Mediterranean by boat. The thousands of tiny islands sprinkled throughout the waters near the Greek mainland make it easy for smugglers to evade authorities. Their efforts to sneak migrants in by boat greatly intensified in the 1990s. Nowadays, Turkish organized crime runs a brisk business shuttling people across the sea.
Daniel Okator, a twenty-five-year-old Nigerian migrant, made this crossing to Greece in 2013. Tall and gregarious, he chats to me after parking a cart chock full of scrap on the curb. He earns two or three euros a day, he says, scavenging steel from whatever discarded items he can find—TV sets, tables, sewing needles, metal roofing. His line of work has become big business in Greece: a recent documentary reports that half of the country’s annual steel production comes from these sorts of salvaged materials. Scrapyard operators pay scavengers like Daniel for their metal harvest and then drive it to the foundries to be melted down again.
At a nearby chapel, about twenty Catholic nuns—themselves transplants from Switzerland, Rwanda, India, and elsewhere—give the migrants clothes and serve them breakfast and lunch. Daniel typically spends half his day there, helping the nuns with their chores. The nuns have chosen him and several other migrants to serve as guards at the chapel, providing security whenever an occasional fist or knife fight breaks out among the migrants. At midday, however, the chapel closes, and Daniel is left to roam central Athens by himself, pushing his cart down the street in search of scrap metal—or, in the winter, riding buses to keep warm.
Daniel used to be a music student in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, but then Boko Haram struck the city. (Over the last several years, the jihadist group has killed and kidnapped thousands in its drive to establish an Islamic state within Nigeria, whose population is split almost evenly between Muslims and Christians.) In 2011, a suicide bomber drove a car rigged with explosives into a United Nations building in Abuja, killing twenty-three people. Boko Haram claimed responsibility. That brazen attack convinced Daniel—a Muslim himself—to leave the country.
Daniel got in touch with a member of a smuggling network. His connection was a “recruiter,” what law enforcement calls a network’s low-level operatives, who answer to its manager, or “coordinator.” Recruiters usually come from the same country as the people they seek to recruit. They talk up life in Europe to potential migrants, sign them up, and then collect the fees. In Daniel’s case, the price of a one-way covert trip to Greece was 1,800 euros.
The recruiter obtained a visa for Daniel from the local Turkish consulate. (In some African countries, it is easy to find corrupt public officials—border police, immigration officials, consulate employees—who will issue visas in exchange for bribes.) Daniel’s ultimate destination was Greece, but first he flew to Istanbul. He continued by land to Izmir, where he and twenty other migrants boarded a rust-covered boat. The voyage was short, only an hour, but the sea was rough and the boat engines rattled. Near the shores of the Greek island of Chios, the boat tipped over. Most of the passengers managed to swim to the shore. Two did not. “Swim!” the smuggler yelled at the group. No one went back to help the man and woman left behind.
Years later, Daniel still thinks about them. He will picture them in his mind, two human beings drowning slowly in the roiling waters, groping desperately for someone to latch onto.
For the most part, Greece has not welcomed the African masses that have come to its shores, yearning to breathe free. More than half of Africans migrants questioned in a 2013 survey conducted by Harokopio University said that there is widespread racism in Greek society. (Only a third of them, however, said that there is widespread racism within their own neighborhoods.) Stereotypes about immigrants abound here, as in many countries, and African migrants from poor or war-torn lands endure much of the more invidious prejudices. Recent fears about the spread of Ebola—crudely identified with the continent—have not helped matters. But the lousy economy seems to be a key driver of the nativist rage directed at this group. Anti-immigrant parties like Golden Dawn have been doing better at the polls ever since the economic crisis struck.
Landry Mbida is a thirty-six-year-old migrant from Cameroon. He has been in Greece a little over a year. Even though Landry, like most Cameroonians, is a Christian, he feels intensely isolated from Greek society. “When I get on the bus, people turn the other way round,” he says. “Some hold their noses, others change seats.”
Landry is a big man with dreadlocked hair, a broad nose, and a slightly protruding jaw—someone whose fierce facial features might easily intimidate—and it’s not always clear what role his race plays in the way he’s treated from day to day. That said, it is abundantly clear to him that he’s not welcome, for whatever reason, wherever he goes. When he left his home country, he first went to Istanbul. He quickly learned that Turkey was not the country for him. “They wouldn’t give me a job once they learned I am Christian,” he says. So Landry took a boat to Greece. When he reached the shores of the island of Chios, he was arrested and put in a detention center. After a month, he was transferred to another camp in Komotini, where he spent three more months.
Greece’s detention centers are notorious. Migrants are routinely crammed into shipping containers, living among rats and receiving scant medical care while they wait—sometimes for more than a year—to be deported. “I fell sick every day there,” Landry says. “They only gave us bread, lots of bread.” The lack of nourishment gave Landry chronic stomach cramps, and he had to be rushed to an outside hospital three times. “I asked for medicine, but they wouldn’t give it to me.”
Syriza, the left-wing Greek political party that won power in the January election, has started emptying the detention centers. It has promised to speed up the process for deciding asylum requests. And it has called for a new framework for granting legal status to migrants. Even if Syriza is successful in reforming the nation’s immigration policy, however, global problems of poverty and war will continue to lead desperate African migrants to Greece’s shores. And there is little in the way of a plan to deal with those who have been evacuated from the government’s detention centers. (Asked where the released migrants go, Tasia Christodoulopoulou, Syriza’s minister of immigration policy, said nonchalantly that they head to other European countries.)
For his part, Landry applied for asylum six months ago. He dreams of the day he will be able to share a house again with the wife and two young kids he left behind in Cameroon. Right now, he lives in a two-room shack inhabited by ten men. “No, six now,” he says, correcting himself. “Four left for Northern Europe on foot.” They are now in Serbia.
“But I really want a chance here!” Landry exclaims, suddenly perking up. “Not with this …” He points at the pile of scrap he has collected. “This isn’t a job.” At the end of the day he will cart the bounty to his Lebanese buyer, who pays just eighteen cents for a kilo of tin. “Eighteen cents! Eighteen cents!” he says, practically shouting.
The anger passes. Landry glances at his clothes: scruffy jeans and muddy athletic shoes, treasures from a dustbin and handouts from a charity.
“I want to be clean,” he says, smiling sheepishly.
A homeless man has to have a code. On the streets, African migrants take turns rummaging through the same garbage cans. Blaise knows the rules. He steps away from his bin when he spots another migrant approaching with a cart. Recognizing the man, Blaise beckons him over.
Kevin—who refuses to give his full name for fear of deportation—is a Nigerian migrant in his early forties. Short and compact, he has a warm smile and, unlike Blaise, an apparent affinity for cameras. In the winter chill, he wears a flimsy beige jacket over a bright blue T-shirt, along with a pair of woolen gloves. They are gifts, he says, from “my Catholic sisters”—the nuns at the nearby chapel.
Three years ago, when he was living in Nigeria, Kevin came up with a business idea: buy clothes at a low price in Europe and resell them in his home country. The overseas venture meant that Kevin had to leave behind his wife and two children. Nevertheless, his father gave Kevin his blessing to go. The family needed money.
Soon after he made it to Europe, Kevin’s dream fell apart. He had hoped to get to Italy, where he has relatives, but his recruiter sent him to Greece. (Recruiters will often not tell migrants the route that they will take, or the country where they will land.) Today, Kevin lives in a dilapidated garage. He makes his living not by reselling clothes, but by scavenging for scrap. It’s a tough way to survive, and yet some native Greeks, he says, won’t even give him credit for his hard work.
“Why do Nigerians sell drugs?” a police officer once asked him.
“I don’t sell drugs,” Kevin replied, offended. “All fingers are not the same.”
It is usually the older Greeks who will insult migrants on the street; according to Kevin, the young tend to be more “relaxed.” (That said, Kevin’s fellow scavenger Daniel claims to have received five stitches to his leg after a gang of young men—interestingly, second-generation Albanian immigrants—harassed him and then set their dog on him.)
From Kevin’s point of view, the only people who actually go out of their way to help migrants like him are the nuns. When there isn’t enough scrap to fill their carts, he and his fellow scavengers turn to the nuns for food, water, clothes, and even cell-phone charging (on the street, finding an electrical outlet they can use is a special challenge). “If it weren’t for the Catholic sisters, we would have died,” says Kevin, a Catholic. Government-run food banks will offer them food, and hospitals will treat them for emergencies, but the migrants I spoke to felt closest to the nuns, who knew them personally.
The mother superior, who will only identify herself as “Sister Maria,” is a native of Switzerland. She is devoted to her work in the community, to the point that she becomes anxious when migrants (Algerian drug addicts, in one case) go without socks. People in Europe cannot understand what these people have been through, she says. She cringes when she describes the overcrowded conditions at the Amygdaleza detention center, which she and the other nuns visit every week. (Under the new government’s orders, Amygdaleza was recently evacuated.) The nuns bring the migrants not only food and sweets but also markers and notebooks. Some of them are so depressed by their confinement, she says, that they need a chance to work with their hands and find a creative outlet for their stress.
Of all his countrymen and women who have left their homeland in recent years, Kevin is one of the lucky ones. Hundreds have died at sea, but he survived. Many have traded poverty in Africa for poverty elsewhere, but he made it to Europe, a land of peace and prosperity. Nonetheless, things have not gone the way Kevin once hoped they would. These days, his bitterness threatens to overwhelm his good nature.
“Stay where you are,” he says when asked to give a word of advice to his fellow Africans on the other end of the ocean. “You don’t know what you’re getting into. You’re going to suffer.”
Postscript: A few months later, I learned that Kevin had been arrested and taken to the Petrou Ralli detention center. The nuns have visited him several times. As of April, he was still there.
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