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Help the Somali Refugees in Greece

By Doug Rutledge
Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The situation for Somali refugees in Greece is really desperate

By now, everyone who is interested in Somalia knows the United Nations has declared that this small country houses the worst refugee crisis in Africa.  We know that nearly  million people have been displaced from Mogadishu alone, and we know that the southern route to the refugee camps in Kenya has been cut off by the Kenyan military.  But what happens to the people who make it out of Somalia?  Where do they go and how are they treated?

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One of the most common refugee routes leads people north from Mogadishu to Bossaso, Somalia.  Here people fleeing the violence of their hometown must pay as much as $2,000 to take a raft across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen.  From Yemen, they can take a bus through Saudia Arabia, but then they must walk through Syria and Turkey.  This journey often takes place at night and usually requires two weeks of hard, quick walking.  Amal is 19.  She was pregnant when she left Somalia.  She and her husband could not afford to pay the smugglers for two passages, so they thought it best if Amal were to have her baby in what they thought would be the safe harbor of Europe.  For this part of the walking tour, the pregnant Amal had to pay the smugglers $550.  All through the journey they pushed and shoved the young woman, threatening to leave her behind if she could not keep up.  When she reached Izmir, Turkey, Amal’s child was born.  From there, Amal had to pay the smugglers another $1,000 to cross the Aegean Sea.  There were 18 people on the inflatable raft that carried Amal and her baby away from Turkey.  The smugglers forced her to get out of the raft before it reached shore, because they did not want to get caught by the Greek Coast Guard, so the terrified Amal had to carry her child over her head, while she struggled through the waves toward dry land.  Then she had to carry her baby over a mountain, with the trees tearing at her clothes.  On the other side of the mountain, Amal was captured by the Greek police.

Nearly all refugees are captured by the Greek police, but one would think that this would be fine.  After all, Greece is part of the European Union, where the Geneva Convention is recognized, as is the European Declaration of Human Rights. 

Unfortunately, this is not the case.  Almost no one is granted asylum in Greece.  In order to apply for asylum, a person needs a job.  To get a job, you need a work permit, and to get a work permit, you need to have applied for asylum.  There is no way to break the cycle of bureaucratic requirements. 

Ali Hussien, of the Greek Refugee Council, told us that between 2000 and 2005, the Greek government granted refugee status to a mere 114 people.  This works out to be 23 a year or about two a month.   In fact, the European Union has sanctioned Greece for offering asylum to less than 2% of the people who apply. 

Instead, what Greece offers refugees, after it has held them in detention for anywhere from one week to a month, is a card that tells them to leave the country within 30 days or be arrested.  The authorities held Amal in detention on an island for 18 days.  In detention, she was given only adult food for both herself and her baby.  Many people report being beaten in detention, as the police try to determine the identity of the smugglers.  When she was released, Amal was put on a ship that took her to the mainland and Athens.  Amal was expected to pay her own fare.  She had no money, so other refugees had to pay her way.

Because they are denied official status, Amal and other Somali refugees are told to leave the country, but if they try to leave, Greek authorities will arrest them for traveling without papers, and if they actually manage to get on the plane, the authorities in other countries will send them back to Greece because of the Dublin Regulations.  The Dublin Regulations hold that when a refugee enters Europe, he or she must remain in the country through which he or she first entered the European Union.  The EU is clearly using border countries like Greece as a barrier to the rest of Europe.

So Amal is being told that she cannot travel to a country that will recognize her rights as a war refugee, and she is also being told that she cannot work in Greece.  How is she supposed to care for her baby?  She can’t even earn money for baby food.  Her husband, who is still in Mogadishu, is prevented by the war from earning any money.

It is true that a Christian organization, Helping Hands offers food to Somali refugees once a week.  However, its goal is ultimately to convert the Muslim Somalis.  Moreover, the Somali women are afraid to go there, and one meal a week is hardly enough to relieve the horrible plight the refugees face.

The situation for Somali refugees in Greece is really desperate.  We witnessed several flophouses where 30 to 50 Somali refugees must live.  Here the same room serves as living room, bedroom and dining room.  People can stay in the flophouses, only if they have friends or relatives who will send the 3 euros a night required to rent a tiny space in these rooms.  Otherwise they will become homeless.  We interviewed several Somali people who sleep in the park.

Finally, some men are able to work illegally picking farm produce.  Abdirizak has been in Greece for four years.  He works on the farms when he can.  The work is intermittent, and he is paid much less than white people.  Like other Somali farm workers, he lives in abandoned housing and saves his money so he can buy a ticket to another European country, where he hopes to be treated more humanely.  While he works in Greece, he is abused and called racist names, but every year when he tries to leave, the authorities inevitably send him back.  They never return the price of the ticket, however, so the process of being homeless and working for low wages must begin all over again.

The Somalis in Greece need the help of the Somali Diaspora and of good-hearted people around the world.  They cannot work, and they cannot leave.  Consequently they are cut off from the means of helping themselves.  We need to help these refugees in at least two ways: first of all, we need to draw attention to the injustice of the Dublin Regulations.  From European wars, people have been able to seek refuge all over the world.  It is unspeakably unjust that many Africans are now unable to seek refuge from their wars in Europe.  However, as we are lobbying to change the legal barricades to Europe, we must also find a way to care for the Somali people in Greece, such as Amal, who are prevented from taking care of themselves.  Perhaps we can raise funds that would create a sanctuary for Somali refugees.  There is a crying need for a place that offers housing and food to people, who would otherwise be desperate.   The refugees themselves could be paid to cook and maintain the sanctuary, and if everyone also knew that he or she were free to leave whenever he found a way out of Greece, then perhaps we could save people from the dangerous, dignity-stealing way of life to which they are currently being subjected.

Doug Rutledge
Somali Documentary Project
E-mail: [email protected]

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