African migrants in Greece experience profound injustice.
Hassan Mekki, a 32-year-old Sudanese migrant, was attacked in August 2012 by a group of men holding Greek flags and shouting racist insults, and was left with deep wounds on his back, throat, and neck. Reuters / Yannis Behrakis, December 5, 2012
By Hans Lucht
When I first met Kelly in Athens, Greece, in February 2010, while I was doing ethnographic fieldwork, the police stopped us on the street and checked our papers. We had barely had time to exchange greetings when the three police officers approached us. Kelly was asked to remove his knitted cap in the pan-African green, gold, and red and to open his mouth wide, so a policewoman, assuming he was a dealer, could inspect him for drugs. Kelly, a devout Muslim who takes pride in living “a clean life,” as he puts it, was clearly stung with anger by the incident, but there was little he could do except stand there on the busy sidewalk and open his mouth wide to the officers—and anybody walking by.
Kelly’s unfortunate position as a Ghanaian undocumented migrant in Athens, with no work, no money, and at the bottom of an economy heading for a meltdown, did not offer him any avenues for objection. Clearly, this was not a turn of events he had foreseen when he left Ghana to embark on a new life in Europe—a new life, he had hoped, that would establish him as someone whose life and opinions matter to people, whose counsel is sought by family and peers, and whose efforts in life would leave a mark. Now, for the most part, Kelly later explains, he tries to avoid thinking about his plans at all, especially alone in bed at night, because doing so makes him think “crazy thoughts” that scare him and at times make him fear he is losing his mind and his ethical bearings.
“This is just one of the ways the police humiliate us,” Kelly says, as we head for his apartment after being allowed to go. “Sometimes they make us face the wall and then they knee us very hard in the thighs. It hurts very badly. But they do this to frustrate you, to push, to make you angry, but we—the Ghanaians—are always careful. We always think that one day, one day everything will be different. We will never give up; that’s the Ghana way. God will not let us suffer forever.”
When I ask the young men what they do to survive, they say I wouldn’t want to know: “You see the trash cans–this is what we do.
Kelly and his fellow Ghanaians are mostly Hausa-speaking Muslims from the poor side of Accra. They have no official places to worship in Athens, but attend makeshift prayer sites. The city has more than a hundred of these informal mosques operating, for example, in cultural halls, but also in warehouses, garages, and basement apartments.1 Several arson attacks have taken place in the past, and the underground mosques are discrete, fearful of violent, right-wing extremists. On Fridays, Kelly attends the mosque of a Bengali imam in a former basement store off the high street, next to the square where many Ghanaian migrants gather in the evenings to socialize. Athens has had no official mosque since 1883, when the Ottomans evacuated the city. Even though the Greek Parliament committed to building a mosque in Athens a decade ago, and again approved plans in 2012, the future of Muslim worship is still uncertain. Traditionally, the Greek Orthodox Church opposed the building of a mosque, but in 2006 the Holy Synod, the governing body of the Orthodox Church of Greece, reversed its position and welcomed the Parliament’s decision, as yet to no avail, making Greece the only European capital without a mosque or a Muslim cemetery.
Kelly’s basement apartment consists of two rooms and a small kitchen. The oldest person among them shares the front room, closest to the stairway, with two others, while in the back room, six other men sleep on the floor. When we arrive, at ten o’clock in the morning, it is pitch-black inside, and everybody is still sleeping; the air is heavy and musty, and the only circulation comes from a small window in the kitchen. They were still sleeping, Kelly explains, because they have nothing to do all day and because sleeping helps them stave off hunger.
As the guys wake and greet us, they begin their morning routines with slow, almost exhausted movements. The first person to get up places a large tin bucket that looks like a container for pickled vegetables, probably tomatoes, onto a small gas fire in the kitchen and starts heating water for the morning bath. It is a slow and tiresome project, when one container holds only enough water for one person. The kitchen itself is messy and run down, and cockroaches run in and out under an electrical installation on the wall.
They all express their enormous disappointment over life in Athens; many have stayed several years and have not been able to hold regular work for even one day. They go around town every night looking for bottles, facing strong competition from other migrant groups, and then sleep until noon. Food is scarce, and they take rounds going to friends’ places, hoping that someone is cooking. Or they retrieve food from garbage cans, especially on market days, when vegetables, discarded by local sellers at closing time, can be found in the refuse or thrown into the street. Some sellers also leave boxes with damaged fruits and vegetables next to their stalls, and the migrants know it is OK to take them.
When I ask the young men what they do to survive, they say I wouldn’t want to know: “You see the trash cans—this is what we do.” On a good day, they get five bottles—they only look for Heineken and Amstel because those carry a small deposit of ten cents each when returned—which is almost enough to buy five pieces of the round and flat sweet “Arabic bread” that is sold for seventy cents. They eat the bread with tea with milk and sugar, and often that is the only meal of the day.
In January 2011, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) declared the situation for migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees in Greece a “humanitarian crisis,” and in December 2011 the European Court of Justice upheld the position that asylum seekers could not be sent back to Greece (as their initial point of entry) from other EU countries, since in Greece they risk inhumane and degrading treatment. But things are only going from bad to worse. As Greece struggles to deal with extreme cutbacks, deep recession, and record unemployment—especially among young people—dark-skinned immigrants and asylum seekers have become scapegoats in racially motivated attacks that, according to the UNHCR, have become an almost daily occurrence in Athens.2 As one of the principal points of entry into the European Union, Greece, in the middle of its worst recession in decades, still receives 80 percent of the migrants entering the EU. Several hundred new migrants are reported to cross the river Evros from Turkey every day, including women and children in urgent need of help and protection. Most migrants then head straight for Athens, where they are left to fend for themselves, sleeping in the street and living hand to mouth.
The political power of the extreme right is growing explosively, giving migrants good reason to fear for their safety. Many European correspondents felt shivers run down their spines when, in the first week of September 2012, polls in Greece showed that the neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn, which had eighteen seats in the Parliament, would be the third-largest party in Greece if elections were held then—up nearly 4 percent since the June elections that gave the party a sizeable platform in the Parliament.3 Surprisingly, these numbers came after a serious of controversial incidents that linked the extremist party to violence against political opponents and the “migrant scum” they have promised to kick out of Greece. Prior to the June 2012 election, a former commando soldier and Golden Dawn spokesperson assaulted two political opponents on a live morning television show, throwing a glass of water in the first woman’s face and slapping the second woman twice before evading the police.
In another incident, in September 2012, Golden Dawn supporters—among them a police officer assigned as personal guard to a Golden Dawn MP—raided an open-air market in western Greece and were caught on video attacking stalls operated by migrants. The police are investigating a similar raid in a market in northern Greece involving two other Golden Dawn MPs. In the wake of these attacks against undocumented migrants, Greek and European journalists are asking whether the country is approaching a complete social and political meltdown.4
On top of the difficulties asylum seekers like Kelly and his friends face just keeping their heads above water in the Athens underground, they now live in constant fear of attacks, such as the one I wrote about in a column for The Guardian:
On the morning of May 25, Kelly … was on the bus going to a pickup place at the outskirts of Athens, where African immigrants and asylum seekers go to look for work, when he was attacked by a mob. He saw them from afar, standing at the bus stop—a group of about 10 young men—but thought nothing of it. They were probably going to one of the demonstrations, he supposed. But as they entered the bus, they pulled out bats, iron rods, and knives, and attacked him. …
Kelly knew he had to avoid the guy with the knife that came straight at him. He somehow managed to wrestle the knife from his hands—he’s a big guy and a boxer in Ghana—while the others assaulted a black woman sitting behind him. Suddenly the attackers decided they’d had enough, and disappeared. “The lady was beaten very badly,” Kelly said. “Blood was flowing down her face. She tried to call for help in their language. But nobody came. They were all afraid.” After the attack, the Africans went their separate ways, filing no report with the police.5
In August 2012, a young Iraqi was beaten and stabbed to death by dark-clad perpetrators on motorcycles who had already attacked other migrants during their hunt for victims. Following this incident, Javied Aslam, head of the Pakistani community and president of the Migrant Workers’ Association, told Reuters that at least five hundred migrants had been attacked in the preceding six months, with more than twenty people stabbed and hospitalized during the three-week period at the end of July and beginning of August.6
Migrants and refugees are not the only ones to have felt the wrath of right-wing extremists. In early 2013, a Korean backpacker, Hyun Young Jung, was stopped by two policemen in Athens and asked to produce his papers. One was dressed in plain clothes. Suspicious of fraud, he asked to see their IDs, but instead received a punch in the face. The next thing he knew he was on the sidewalk being kicked. He shouted for help, thinking he was being mugged, and it was only when he was handcuffed and taken to the station that he realized they were indeed police. Still handcuffed, he was hit again in the face outside the police station, and a third time inside, on a stairwell.
In July 2012, Christian Ukwuorji, an American citizen of Nigerian descent, was arrested in Athens while on vacation in Greece with his family—despite showing his U.S. passport. While in police custody, he says, he was beaten so badly that he passed out and woke up in the hospital. The U.S. State Department has issued a warning to Americans traveling to Greece about “unprovoked harassment and violent attacks against persons, who, because of their complexion, are perceived to be foreign migrants.”7
In 2011, 2,000 people drowned trying to reach Europe from Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt. . . . European leaders worry about the economy, but they are busy looking the other way when it comes to refugees.
Mainstream political parties are now also turning their anger toward migrants. In Athens recently, the government detained more than 7,000 people during a seventy-two-hour period, suspecting them of being illegal immigrants—an assumption apparently based only on the color of their skin—and drawing harsh criticism from human rights groups. In defence of the operation, Public Order Minister Nikos Denidas called the immigration question a “bomb at the foundations of the society and of the state.”8 This shift in attitude comes while Greece’s economy is under constant scrutiny and threat of a meltdown. The European Union, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Central Bank released fresh cash in December 2012, averting a Greek bankruptcy, and are now in the process of assessing the effects of new and hugely unpopular austerity plans that entail tax increases and new dismissals of civil servants before the next 2.8 billion euros will be paid out by the end of March 2013. The Greek economy is in its sixth year of recession, and unemployment is at a record high of 26 percent. In total, Greece has received 200 billion euros in rescue loans since May 2010.9
Another attempt at cracking down on immigration has been the construction of a barbed-wire fence along the Turkish border. Such a fence will hardly solve the problem. Lessons from the Mediterranean Sea show that extra pressure applied along clandestine routes does not stop migrants; instead, the price of paying to cross the border generally surges and the risk of loss of human life increases. In 2011 alone, about 2,000 people drowned trying to reach Europe from Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt in the now militarized Mediterranean. The Greeks alone, however, cannot be held responsible for the situation. European leaders worry about the economy, but they are busy looking the other way when it comes to refugees.
For lunch, Kelly takes me to a friend’s apartment, where he usually goes to eat and hang out during the day. For my visit, he has somehow managed to gather enough money to buy a chicken, which is already simmering on the fire when we arrive.
Kelly’s friend, Boss, is busy in the kitchen, expertly preparing the food in a Ghanaian-style tomato sauce. Boss is a truck driver and had worked for the U.S. Army in Iraq. His job was to drive truckloads of military equipment from Kuwait to the war zone up to four times a week. While I look at pictures of him in the desert in front of a vehicle full of bullet holes, he recounts how many of his fellow drivers had been killed by enemy fire or roadside bombs. He considers himself lucky to be alive. Boss’s war experience is a recurring subject of heated discussion among his friends. While I am there, the guys in his flat are disputing the American right to invade a foreign country that had done nothing to attack them: the United States only came to steal Iraqi oil, they argue, provoking Boss, who then has to defend U.S. efforts in Iraq, and by implication his own participation in the unpopular war. Boss maintains that the U.S. invasion was legitimate, since the Americans were only responding to the Iraqi people’s cries for help. And, since they are now helping the Iraqis rebuild the country after having ousted Saddam Hussein, while they should not pay themselves, at least they should be allowed to use the oil money for this purpose. The argument goes on for a long time, becoming more and more agitated. Kelly shrugs his shoulders and says it is nothing: “It gets a lot worse when they are discussing football.”
To Boss, however, the situation is serious enough. When his religiously strict father found out that he was working with the Americans in Kuwait, he disowned Boss for supporting a war against a Muslim country. Boss asked the local imam to intercede, and the imam went to talk to the father twice, but the father would not give in—even though he had benefited greatly from the money Boss sent home from Kuwait. In the end, Boss had no choice but to leave Ghana altogether. “I was afraid for my life. Something bad might have happened,” he explains. Now, there is nothing he can do except wait for the old man to pass away. If only the Greek authorities would listen to him, he argues, they would surely help.
Everywhere the migrants end up, it seems, they are met with new obstacles, whether socioeconomic, political, or legal.
Kelly’s father was a boxer like him and “a very powerful man” from Burkina Faso. He was a foreman at the Ghana Railway Company, and, if one looked in the history books, Kelly explains, his name and picture would be there. But he didn’t give his wife and children the attention one might expect from such a big man. Every time the mother urged him to put up a building, to provide something for their future, he was reluctant, and said he’d rather build in his own country, in Burkina Faso. When he unexpectedly died, the family was left with nothing, causing Kelly to hate his father dearly for his alleged neglect. “It is his fault I am here today, suffering,” he says, sitting on the green couch in Boss’s room, while his friend Abdel prays on a blanket on the floor. Kelly has a son, he adds, two years of age, and he doesn’t want the boy to suffer the way he has suffered himself. That was a big part of the reason he was in Greece at all.
For Kelly and many other migrants, their clandestine journey and undocumented stay in Europe are often justified by a sense of profound injustice, an injustice rooted in the lack of local and global responsiveness to West African hopes and dreams. Everywhere they end up, it seems, they are met with new obstacles, whether socioeconomic, political, or legal in nature. Experientially, the ethical right to claim a life worth living, to pursue a path that may bring about a sense of connection to the imagined sources of well-being, is a right that should take precedence over the formal authority of any given country to deny migrants the right to enter or to stay. Listening to Kelly, one is reminded of anthropologist Michael Jackson’s understanding of ethics as a “morality before Morality based on the deep grammar of reciprocity.”10 That is to say, a sense of right and wrong is always connected to a deeper sense of what is owed and what should be given.
Just making it to Europe often results in massive disappointment: the migrants have crossed great distances, and at times overcome great dangers, only to discover that they have not really moved any closer to the centers of wealth and mobility except in a purely geographic sense. Such a great social and racial distance remains that cannot be bridged, however close they get, physically, to the places they imagined would change their lives. Quite the contrary, it seems as if their marginality sticks to them wherever they go. Perhaps this is a paradox of globalization: that exclusion and inclusion seem to accelerate simultaneously, and in settings shared by those moving forward and those permanently waiting, stuck on the outside.11
This was not the first time Kelly had tried to reach Europe. First, he married a contract wife from the Czech Republic, but the Czech authorities didn’t buy their love story—even though they were married in a Christian church to make it look “genuine” and had an actual party with a big wedding cake. Next, he bought a business visa for Russia and in Moscow boarded an international train for Finland, but he was apprehended, sent back to Russia, and deported to Ghana via Dubai. Then he managed to get a business visa for Turkey through a connection man at the embassy. He stayed three months in Istanbul, working in a factory, before crossing the river Evros one night in a small rubber boat together with eight other migrants. “It’s a very big river, and the boat was really shaky,” he recalls. The Turkish smuggler, who led them across, pointed toward some lights in the distance: “You see the lights? That is Greece.” The group walked about two hours until they reached a small village; the villagers gave them directions to the immigration detention center. It was raining and well past midnight when they reached the camp, but the police said they had to leave because the camp was full already. “It was so cold. We went back to the village, slept outside a provisions store, and in the morning we went back to the camp. The same policemen told us to take a train to another city, Thessaloníki, where there would be another camp that could take us, so that is what we did. But we couldn’t find the camp, and decided to go to Athens instead.” At the train station, however, the police arrested Kelly and one other man from Ghana. They were locked up for a week and then released with a document that gave them three months to leave the country. Kelly, like most migrants, went on to Athens, to apply for asylum.
In the evenings, the immigrants and refugees gather outside the small First Apostolic Church, where Nigerian church members hand out free food to the hungry: small black-laminated containers with rice and stew, and a loaf of bread. There are about a hundred people outside the church the evening I am there, mostly sub-Saharan Africans, North Africans, Bengalis, Pakistanis, and Iraqis. After collecting their food, the Ghanaians retreat to the small square in central Athens where they gather in the evenings. The Ghanaians have the western corner, while the Somalis and the Nigerians have the eastern and the southern corners. Around the square there are small shops open twenty-four hours. The Bengali-run Internet café is especially popular; here, one can browse for fifty cents an hour, in the endless search for European or American women willing to marry. In the current circumstances, this unlikely strategy appears to be the only effort that gives the migrants a small measure of optimism. Migrants are reported to have been offered a route to Bulgaria or Poland—or even to the United States—by their Internet girlfriends. Usually, however, the small cubicles are used as places to rest, where you can “put down your head” and sleep until morning. Outside, in the square that Kelly called “Ghana Base,” there is a small fenced-off children’s playground and a central square circled by benches and palm trees. “This is where I slept, when I first came,” Kelly says and points to the benches. Most of the Ghanaians sleep here when they first arrive, their luggage stored in the trees above them.
While we are talking in the square, the police suddenly arrive. Most of the migrants withdraw quietly. The police arrest a young Greek man and a black man on crutches who is arguing loudly, shove them into the police car, and disappear again.
Because the asylum system has effectively broken down in Greece, migrants have, in many cases, not been able to state their case to the authorities, even though they have stayed in Athens for years, some living in the streets. The following night, Kelly and I visit the notorious Attika Aliens Police Directorate on Petrou Ralli Street in Athens, to meet up with Boss, who needs to renew the pink card that indentifies him as an asylum seeker with the right to remain in the country while his case is processed and considered. Without the card, he could be deported.
The scene is depressing. Hundreds of asylum seekers, including women and children, wait along a fence in heavy rain, covering themselves with pieces of cardboard or torn plastic bags. Many had slept on the ground to be at the front of the line. Typically, after midnight, and sometimes not before early morning, the police come out and select ten to twenty people and tell the rest to go back where they have come from. This often sparks confrontations among the migrants, and fights breaks out. Because of this, the West Africans have divided Fridays between the English-speaking and the French-speaking nationals, to avoid clashes between the two groups.
“The police like to see us fighting; they even laugh at us, when we struggle with each other,” Kelly bitterly claims. We find Boss in the line, sheltering from the rain under a transparent piece of plastic, and Kelly hands him the food he has brought along. A police car is parked in front of the gate, and two officers watch the migrants at all times. We don’t stay long because of the rain and the desolate atmosphere.
Later, Boss tells us that, once again, he has had to give up on the chance of telling his story to the police: “The rain came seriously down. But they were just laughing at us. Then at 1:30 am they came out and picked three people from the front and twenty-six from the back. We don’t know why. We have been standing in line for so long, and they pick someone who has only been there one or two hours. I tried to run to the back of the queue, but I fell down; it was very dark and wet. So, we started to make trouble, but they were beating us with sticks and brought out the dogs for us. They told the rest of us to go back and come again next week. My brother, it is not easy, wasting my time like that in the rain and the cold. There’s no hope here, nothing.”
Clearly, the situation seems to be in danger of slipping out of control. What is needed is a strong, unified European response to how the situation of the thousands of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers can be solved. The Dublin Regulation states that asylum seekers should seek protection in the first European country they arrive in, but when that country, as is the case with Greece, cannot offer them protection, other countries must step in. Leaving asylum seekers like Kelly and his friends at the mercy of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn movement cannot be tolerated.
One day, taking a break from fieldwork, Kelly and I visit the Acropolis and discuss its significance in European cultural history. Kelly, disappointed with his miserable life, says, “The Greeks used to be first in democracy—now they are last.”
- Andy Dabilis, “Without a Mosque, Greece’s Muslims Go Underground,” Southeast European Times, July 10, 2012.
- UNHCR, “Fatal Attack on Iraqi in Athens,” Racist Violence Recording Network press release, Athens, August 15, 2012.
- Reuters, “Support for Greek Far-Right Party Surging, Poll Says,” September 6, 2012.
- See, for instance, Jonathan Jones, “Greece’s Golden Dawn: A Dark Image of Light,” The Guardian, May 11, 2012.
- Hans Lucht, “Greece Must Not Leave Asylum Seekers at the Mercy of Extremists,” The Guardian, December 29, 2012.
- Reuters, “Racist Attacks on the Rise in Greece-Migrants Group,” August 14, 2012.
- Chloe Hadjimatheou, “The Tourists Held by Greek Police as Illegal Migrants,” BBC News Magazine, January 9, 2013.
- “Greece to Deport 1,600 Immigrants Arrested in Athens,” BBC News, August 6, 2012
- Reuters, “Troika Interrupts Greek Bailout Review, Return Later,” March 13, 2013.
- Michael Jackson, Life Within Limits: Well-being in a World of Want (Duke University Press, 2011), 75.
- See Hans Lucht, Darkness before Daybreak: African Migrants Living on the Margins in Southern Italy Today (University of California Press, 2011), 67.
Hans Lucht, an anthropologist at the University of Copenhagen, is the author of Darkness before Daybreak: African Migrants Living on the Margins in Southern Italy Today.