Twenty-five-year-old Asem and his eighteen-year-old brother are stuck in a place that doesn’t want them. They are two of the nearly 40,000 refugees and asylum seekers that the UN estimates are currently in Greece, a country that is struggling under the weight of its worst economic crisis in decades as an ever flowing stream of illegal migrants lands on its shores. Together these two factors make a volatile mix—the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, with a platform based on extreme nationalism and outright racism, currently holds 18 seats in the Greek parliament. The party’s headquarters is in Asem’s neighborhood, but he said it doesn’t bother him too much. “I worry more about the police than the fascists,” he said. “They’re the reason why I hardly ever go out. If they catch me I might spend six months in jail.”
The Golden Dawn is manipulating a rising crescendo of popular resentment. Many people in Greece feel that their country has become the illegal backdoor to Europe, the easy access route to the Promised Land for the tens of thousands of desperate migrants who make the journey from the east every year. But what Greece has actually become is Europe’s holding pen. This may be the place where huge numbers of migrants enter Europe, but it is not the place that they want to stay.
“Of course we don’t want to stay here. Nobody wants to stay here,” said Asem. “Nobody likes being a refugee in this country.” It is a cruel twist of circumstance: he doesn’t want to be here and the Greeks don’t want him to be here either, and yet it is almost impossible for him to leave. The glossy Greek tourist board videos that play on a loop in Athens’s metro stations depict a bucolic paradise that shares little in common with Asem’s claustrophobic existence—five of them to a room in an identikit suburb, six long months in the city and counting. “The thing is, I always wanted to travel,” Asem told me as he laughed at the irony of it all. “I just never wanted to do it like this.”
Ten months ago Asem and his family had never traveled outside Damascus. But a devastating airstrike on their neighborhood last December forced them to sell their home, their possessions and their car, and begin a painstaking journey in the hands of the people smugglers. Now Asem’s family is scattered across Europe: his mother and sisters in Germany, his father in Turkey, his aunts in Sweden and his uncles in Denmark.
“First we went to Lebanon, and we stayed there for one month while we applied for our visas to Turkey,” he said. “Then we flew to Istanbul. I liked it there and I wanted to stay. I’d found a job as a graphic designer. But my family wanted to come to Europe, and I had to go with them. You know how families are in the Middle East; we’re close.”
As the war in Syria has intensified, the options for the people who want to escape it have closed down. In Southern Turkey I met two young women from Latakia who had started new lives in Egypt, only to be forced to leave again when Mursi was ousted and the mood against Syrians turned ugly. Even the Turkish Republic of Cyprus recently announced that it would no longer let Syrians across its border. And a Syrian friend who is living and working in Turkey discovered that there are now only nine countries in the world that he can travel to for a holiday without a visa. “I even need one for Somalia,” he said with an amused resignation.
The only option for most of the Syrians who want to get to Europe is to go there illegally. Once they are there they cannot be forced to leave—they’ll be given asylum-seeker status, and allowed to apply for residency. But there is no way of applying from outside, and so traveling into Europe through a shady network of people smugglers is not just the last resort but the only one. Asem’s family have followed a well-traveled route, but their story reveals just how unpredictable and risky it is.
Their first plan was to buy fake passports from a people smuggler, and to use them to fly from Istanbul to somewhere in Europe. “They look for someone who looks like you,” Asem explained. “The person who owned the passport will have been given some money for it, and they will wait for thirty days until they report it as stolen.” But the going rate for just one stolen passport in Istanbul is USD 8,000, and the family couldn’t afford it.
So they defaulted to option two. “Someone recommended that we go to Athens by boat,” said Asem. “They said that it’s much easier to fly from the airport there. So we made a deal with a smuggler. He took USD 1,000 from each of us, and told us that there would be a bus to take us to the coast at 4 am. From there we would take the boat to Greece.”
The clarity with which Asem recalled the details of that trip revealed how deeply it had etched itself onto his memory. “They organize it like this,” he said. “It’s a rubber boat but the bottom is made of wood. So the women and the children sit at the center, and the men sit on the rubber bit around the outside. It was six meters long, and forty people got into it.”
In the moonlight Asem could already see the Greek island they were heading for, even as he stood on the shores of Turkey. It looked so close that he thought it would take them just ten minutes to reach it. The smuggler didn’t come with them. Instead, he taught one of the people on the boat how to steer it. “That person only paid half, but it’s a big risk,” Asem said. “If you get caught, that person is charged as if he is the smuggler.”
And they were certain that they would get caught. The journey didn’t take ten minutes, it took two hours. Asem was sure that they would be spotted by the patrol boats as they traveled towards Greece underneath the cloudless night sky. Weighing heavy on his mind was the fate of some of the previous night’s travelers—some of them had fallen into the freezing February sea and drowned there. “I’m still stunned that we made it,” he said.
Twenty-six members of Asem’s family traveled to Greece. But his father wasn’t among them—his brother had died in the December airstrike and he had stayed in Damascus to comfort his mother. Now, with the bombing continuing and the neighborhood under siege by Assad’s forces, he has left too and is currently stuck in Turkey, waiting for his chance to take that same boat journey and catch up with the rest of his family. “He’s tried four times already, and they’ve been caught and sent back each time,” said Asem. “I think that now they’ve increased the patrols on the Turkish and the Greek sides. One in every five or six boats makes it. He’ll try again next week.”
The family’s plan was to travel on to Sweden. “The rest of my family went first,” said Asem, “and the idea was that me and my brother would travel later.” The smugglers were charging 3000 Euros per persons for the fake passports to leave Greece, and the family didn’t have enough money for everyone. But his mother and sisters were stopped and discovered as they transferred between flights in Germany. According to the EU’s rules, you have to apply for asylum in the first country you arrive in. So it is Germany they must stay in, even though they know nobody there and don’t speak the language.
And Asem and his brother must now play the waiting game as they try to get out of Greece. They have already tried and failed to fly out of the country four times on fake passports. Each time they are discovered, they are simply sent back. And as the tourism season ends and the airports empty out, the security checks are becoming tougher and the smugglers’ prices are rising.
Asem finished his coffee and left to meet his contact to learn what the latest rate was. “We’re running out of money,” he told me. “We have already spent everything that we made from selling the house and car.”
The next day he emailed me. “He asked for EUR 5,500 each,” he said. “The price goes up every time.”
Even through the desperation of his situation he managed a grim humor. “Today’s title: I will die in Athens,” he wrote.