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From Kabul to Athens

June 20, 2012

Every year, thousands of Afghans try their luck getting to the EU. Many of those who make it get stuck in Greece, where there are few jobs and little state provision.

Greek police escort immigrants to be checked for their documents at the centre of Athens March 29, 2012. The Citizen Protection ministry and the municipality of Athens have launched a sweep operation against crime and illegal immigration in the centre of the capital. The ministry announced earlier this week plans to set up new reception centres across the country to temporarily host the illegal migrants arrested. REUTERS/John Kolesidis (GREECE - Tags: CRIME LAW SOCIETY IMMIGRATION POLITICS)
Flüchtlinge Immigranten Polizei in GriechenlandImage: Reuters

It was about midnight somewhere in the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece. Five young Afghans were sitting in a dinghy, paddling for their lives. The people smugglers had told them it would take about six hours and they would arrive in paradise - Greece, and the European Union.

However, when they reached the coast, the welcome was not what they had hoped for. "The border police arrested us and put us on a ship," says Ahmad Karim (not his real name). "A bit later they threw us back in the water near a small uninhabited Turkish island."

Karim, who was 23 years old at the time, said he and his companions were rescued by a Turkish fisherman. They were able to get to Istanbul and a few weeks later they tried to make their way to the West again.

Left in the lurch

Every year, thousands of Afghans such as Karim try to escape their war-torn country with its violence, insecurity and lack of prospects. They depend on people smugglers, who promise them a stable life in a European country.

Afghan asylum seekers in Athens
Afghan asylum seekers in Athens often do odd jobs to surviveImage: DW

"We're not talking about people who want to help refugees here but people who take money for it. We keep seeing that refugees are dying because they are killed or left in the lurch in the high seas by smugglers," laments UNHCR spokesman Stefan Telöken.

Afghans who want to get to Australia and apply for asylum there usually make the arduous journey via Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia. Those who are trying to get to Europe take the route via Iran, Turkey and Greece.

The entire journey costs around 10,000 euros but, because many lack the money to do it in one go, they save up and do it in stages. Initially, Karim only had enough to get to Iran where he ended up working for years to save us for the next phase.

"You get exploited and mistreated in Iran. You are never treated like a person," he says.

Today, there are about a million Afghan refugees living in Iran and most are trying to get to Europe. Karim hid with relatives and acquaintances for about three years, taking on every job he could, working mainly in mining. Eventually, he had enough money to get to Turkey where he spent a year working illegally again. Finally, he had enough to get to Greece.

Failed asylum system

His first attempt failed, but the second time he was not thrown back into the sea by the police when they arrested him. He was sent to Athens to present his case to the authorities, but had a tough time though.

"Greece is in a very difficult political and economical situation," explains Telöken. "And Greece doesn't have a functioning asylum system. It has practically collapsed under tens of thousands of asylum attempts. There is not enough capacity. Many asylum seekers are living in desperate conditions. The state is not in a position to look after them."

The smugglers demand 5,000 euros to help them leave Greece and take them further west. But almost none of the Afghans Karim knows in Athens has that money. It is hard enough to struggle through daily life since the state cannot provide them with anything; and then they cannot save for their onwards journey.

The Acropolis
The asylum system has collapsed as Greece struggles to deal with its economic crisisImage: Fotolia/anastasios71

Karim also says that some Afghans are becoming criminals as a result, sometimes preying on fellow refugees. "They pretend to be people smugglers and collect money from refugees, promising to bring them to Europe soon."

"If they suspect someone of having money, they threaten him and beat him up until he hands over his savings," he says.

Ahmad Karim has made several attempts to leave Greece over the past five years, but he either ran out of money or was arrested by the border police. However, he does not want to go back: "What difference does it make whether I die here or in Afghanistan?"

Author: Ratbil Shamel / act
Editor: Richard Connor