A Report From Athens
The heavy police presence in Viktoria Square is backed up by two very large mobile tactical units, converted buses where the armed police take meals and breaks, conduct briefings and store their equipment. On one end of the square a sentry post complete with parasol sunshade looks like something from a West Bank checkpoint. Uniformed police in pairs and larger groups are stand around the plaza smoking and chatting. All are armed, some are wearing leather-armour and riot gear. As well as the holstered pistols some carry large machine guns. At each corner of the square an officer stands with a large riot shield and wears or carries a visored helmet.
This is not a place where the US president is on a visit, neither is it a place where there has been a “terrorist” attack or threat. No this is Viktoria Square a small plaza in Athens, “migration central” for many desperate people seeking to travel deeper into “Fortress Europe”. In the recent past the migrants stayed on the square 24 hours a day while waiting for paperwork or opportunities to travel on. Now police ensure that the families, single men and children who inhabit the square during the day are cleared out by midnight. Where do they go? It’s hard to say, most seem to melt into the surrounding areas and some bed down in nearby parks most of which are already the dormitories of victims of the Greek economic crisis and the punishment inflicted by the EU, IMF and World Bank.
The heavy policing of Viktoria Square is just one of the worries of the many daytime inhabitants, the hopefuls who have made their way here to a staging post in what they hope will be a journey to freedom and security. They gather here while waiting for papers to be processed and efforts are made by themselves and on their behalf to deliver them from misery.
Basic facilities such as public toilets are not available in the area. Some of the owners of the surrounding cafés and bars allow limited use of their toilet facilities by women and children from the square. Few if any will accommodate the males migrants unless they have money to spend.
Despite the very harsh conditions that many of the migrants have endured, there is very little evidence of despair. Yes, weariness and fatigue is written on the faces, especially those of the very young and the old, however there is an unmistakeable air of optimism among the various groups of many nationalities and cultures.
Al’s family sits in a group on the edge of a concrete planter on the square. Even here where there are many different ethnic clothes styles evident, his family is recognisable as a group because they all wear similar jackets and leggings and all including the very small children have the same black sports bags. There are two young women, an older woman and two teenage girls and a boy and three very young boys and a girl who sit on their bags. One of the boys seems to be asleep leaning against his brothers back while the other two prod each other playfully.
Al who speaks near-perfect English with an American accent tells me that he and his family have been traveling for many weeks since they left Afghanistan. The last leg of their journey took them from Turkey and across the Aegean by way of the islands. They arrived in the port of Pireaus in the last few days and made their way here. They want to go on to Germany but for now they are happy to rest somewhere.
Al points to one of the policemen nearby speaking into a radio. He tells me that this policeman has told him that the bus will be arriving soon to take them to a camp. Al says they are happy to go to the camp so they can get some proper food and some medical aid for the children who have been ill on the journey. He says they will rest there at the camp for a few days before continuing on. He is aware of the recent closing of the border with Macedonia but is confident that they will be able to travel on and that the European Union will reward his and his families willingness to work hard with a safe place to live and schools for his children. His home town in Afghanistan has never recovered from the constant upheaval of wars and there is little hope for a future for his children back there.
Later that evening I come back to the square. The area has not yet been cleared for the night by the police and people are still sitting and standing around. A group of international volunteers is distributing food packs, coffee and baby supplies Over by the planter, Al’s family are huddled together sharing some food. I look around for Al. He is across the square speaking with one of the policemen. I move on.
An hour later I return and find that Al and his family are nowhere to be seen. The square has been cleared and all is quiet. I visit the square regular in following days I make inquiries. No one knows of Al’s family.
In the days following the news of a new deal between the EU and Turkey is announced. Many of the migrants transiting through Turkey and into the EU are to be returned to Turkey. Despite the EU criticisms of Turkey on its human rights records, despite Turkey not being ready to join the most “civilized” of nations in the EU, despite Turkeys treatment of the Kurds and evidence of Syrian refugees being forcefully repatriated into grave danger, despite the EU’s stated commitments to take in migrants we are doing a dirty deal with Turkey to export a problem and ramp up the victimisation of innocents.
Have Al and his family been sent to the camps of Turkey? We have no way of knowing.
We must fight to bring down this system that supports the wars and oppression inflicted on people such as Al and his family and then further victimizes those people fleeing such wars and oppression. Western interference in Afghanistan led to the chain of events that brought Al’s family to Viktoria Square. Similar interventions in the Middle East and elsewhere result in many others taking similar routes. We must live up to our responsibilities. We must fight to end imperialist wars and interference and we must open the borders to persons fleeing the appalling situations we were complicit in creating.