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This is the second article in a two-part account of the author’s experiences in Athens. The first instalment can be found here.
Last month, I stood on Syntagma square in Athens, where I was introduced to Syrian refugees fleeing the war. I am sorry to write that on the morning of Monday 15th December 2014, the Athens police removed the Syrian refugees, clearing the square. These people were not even given the chance to put on their shoes.
I had written about the desperate situation that these ‘unlikely’ refugees found themselves in; for the most part, they were middle class people who lived in comfortable homes and had shown me photos of their lives, which were recognisably comfortable by European standards.
It is difficult to comprehend the struggle faced by Syrian refugees, from our relatively comfortable surroundings. However, a cinematic attempt has been made to reconstruct this struggle, contextualised in a UK setting. This video was shared by a friend of mine and it tries to help us understand what Syrian refugees have experienced and are experiencing in their lives.
The desperation of the Syrians’ plight is evident and the tragedy that has filled their lives is clear to those who come into contact with them. This tragedy seems to be never-ending and they are constantly under threat. In Syria, they were threatened by President Assad’s MiGs, an extremist and unaccountable militia. Ordinary people were exposed to the danger of being caught in the crossfire between warring factions. 6.5 million Syrians have been displaced and over 3 million of the people who have left Syria have, in turn, joined the world’s growing refugee population. Many Syrians are trafficked to Europe via Athens, which presents a further danger. Now, the baton-wielding Athens police represent another threatening force. If it is difficult to witness such human suffering as a spectator, then it must be agony to experience as the victim.
The treatment of the Syrians on Syntagma could be viewed as an example of the way in which European society is prepared to treat the most marginalised people; those who are in need of the most help. The forcible movement of people from one space to another, without even the time to tie their shoelaces, is a part of Europe’s past which has been immortalised in art in Budapest, Hungary. On the Pest side of the Danube, Can Togay commissioned a memorial to Jews murdered by Fascists during WW2, which depicts the shoes left by the side of the river where the massacre of Jewish people took place. The memorial is a chilling reminder of the way in which Europeans discriminated against certain groups, to such an extent that killing them was regarded a ‘solution’.
The Syrian refugees I met on the square had suffered terribly and had escaped with their lives.These Syrians arrived in Athens, beleaguered, miserable, vulnerable and exhausted, but not broken.
The treatment they received from NGOs was admirable but the Athens police, under orders from the Greek government, forcibly removed these people from Syntagma square. I believe many of these refugees will eventually be reunited with family members seeking refuge in other European countries, albeit after a lengthy wait, which will further test their patience. For those with papers, the bureaucracy and stringent rules for non-EEA citizens moving between EU countries appear the greatest barrier to entry. For those without papers, the future is a waiting game. As an EU citizen with a valid passport, when I came through Edinburgh airport on my return, I heard passengers complaining about the 10 – 15 minute wait at border control. The war in Syria broke out in 2011 and so some of the refugees I met have been waiting for 4 years. Context is everything.
The problems in Greek society are particularly difficult at present and require sensitivity. The uncertainty of these times means that even those who are in comfortable and secure positions in our societies can be reduced to homelessness or, in this case, refugees; falling through the cracks of our expensive and apparently ‘democratic’ systems. In Syria, the Syntagma refugees had “nice” homes and “nice” cars. Last month, they were swept off their feet by the Greek authorities. It would have been “nice” had they been given the opportunity to put on their shoes.
*This article was first published on Thomas’s personal blog, on the 25th January 2015.
This article is part of GRAMNet’s personal reflections blog series, where contributors offer short reflections on their personal, day-to-day interactions with migration issues. If you would like to contribute to this series, please get in touch using the contact form below. We welcome all contributions, whether sharing positive or negative experiences.