Today, two Afghan children who have been attending our spaces for several years were celebrating in the streets of the small town of Polykastro. They ran up to volunteers with open arms shouting “Teacher, we are going to Germanyyyyy!”. The atmosphere was full of hugs, encouragement and celebration, but the excitement faded into an expression of nostalgia when one of them said “We are going to miss OCC.” This sentence was charged with uncertainty and unanswered questions: How will it be to change countries again? How will their parents recreate some semblance of stability in their lives? How will it be to start all over again: feeling disoriented, moved from one police station to another and from one refugee camp to another without knowing anyone? But, most of all, how will it be to start the asylum request process in a new country all over again?
Actually, the last few weeks in Polykastro have been full of changes. Many families who had been waiting for years to complete their asylum process in Greece are getting international protection or refugee status along with their Travel Document. This last one works like a passport but it is only a permit that allows them to travel abroad for a maximum of 3 months. Having concluded the asylum request, they can stay in Greece legally. After 7 years of living continuously in this country, they can also apply for citizenship. This would therefore seem to be the end of the exhausting migration journey, but actually, it is not; it’s just another step on a path full of challenges.
Greece does not give these people a chance to build a dignified life for themselves: as soon as they get the documents, they remain without any form of subsidy or aid and are deprived of their space in the refugee camp where they were living. They are expected to become ordinary citizens as if overnight they have the tools to be autonomous in Greece. A country where until then they have lived confined within the walls of refugee camps, often in extremely difficult conditions and without any possibility of emancipation from humanitarian aid. Recognizing the significance of these issues, France, Switzerland and Germany are welcoming people who have obtained documents to reapply for asylum within their borders. In fact, differently from Greece, these countries continue to support people after obtaining refugee status, until they find a job that enables them to pay for their life.
This prompts families to take yet another big step: moving to one of these countries by giving up their Greek documents and starting the long and arduous asylum request process all over again. This involves passing through the long and gruelling interviews that once again reopen past wounds and traumas and are often conducted in an atmosphere of distrust. This time they will have to retrace the reasons that led them to flee their country by adding those that pushed them to leave Greece, in order to prove that they can be entitled to international protection from this new country.
Being exposed to this reality, we started talking to families who were about to leave or who had already arrived at their new destination. Depending on each individual person and their age, their feelings about leaving differ. Generalizing, for adults achieving something they have been waiting for years is mostly relieving. While for children, fear of moving and sadness about leaving their friends are predominant. For teenagers, we perceive mixed feelings: relief at being able to take a step forward and, on the other hand, nervousness and fear of facing a new reality and going through the process again.
Restarting in Germany and France
Concerning who has already left Greece, we had the opportunity to speak with Shakiba* and Sana*, two 19-year-old women from Afghanistan and Ali*, a 28-year-old man from Syria. They are now in Germany and France, respectively.
Shakiba: “The only thing that has a different feeling between Greece and here is more about the hope for my future, I mean studying and having a job”
Shakiba spent 3 years in Nea Kavala camp – next to Polykastro – with her family, and they have been in Germany for 4 months. Sana left Nea Kavala with her mother only one month ago. The two women explained to us what happens when they arrive in Germany, based on their own experiences: whether at a train station or an airport, the police stop them and ask if they are just passing through or want to stay. When they express their intention to ask for international protection (or the recognition of refugee status), as a déjà vu the process begins: the police take away the Greek documents, fingerprint them, and scrutinize every detail about them. Both of them told us that they spent many hours with the police.
For example, Shakiba’s family was stuck at Schwerin station from 2 to 11 p.m. while Sana and her mother were in Hamburg from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. They were then accompanied to a refugee camp, depending on availability. Shakiba was immediately registered in a camp 170 km from Schwerin, while Sana and her mother were waiting to be placed in a camp and were taken to a hotel room in Munich among other asylum seekers who arrived in Germany at the same time. During this waiting period, Sana described how she is spending her days: in the hotel lobby, taking walks and trying to learn German on YouTube.
Although Shakiba has been in Germany longer, she is also still waiting. In her case, waiting to be included in the school system or to be able to take German language courses. For those under 18 (like her 3 siblings), inclusion in public education is immediate. So, in the meanwhile, just like Sana, Shakiba studies from Youtube. Her family was already interviewed about their life in Greece and is now waiting to be questioned about what they experienced throughout their life before arriving in Greece. While talking with Shakiba, she noticed our optimism regarding the waiting time and explained there is no way of knowing how long they will have to wait. Probably years. For example, the family living next door to them in the refugee camp has been waiting for 2 years.
Communicating with people who are going or have been through this path raises our awareness about how many years of their lives are spent in endless waiting for policy decisions and bureaucratic processes. And in a constant state of uncertainty and instability. Crucial years for the growth of children and adolescents pass without them being able to follow a continuous school path, cultivate a passion or hobby, and weave stable and lasting relationships.
When we asked Shakiba if Germany lived up to her expectations, she answered “yes“ and then added: “I can’t say that when we arrived here the situation was perfect. Yes, it was a bit better than in Greece but everywhere there are different difficulties to face. The only thing that has a different feeling between Greece and here is more about the hope for my future, I mean studying and having a job”. Both she and Sana consider themselves lucky to have left Greece. However, they told us how exhausting it was each time having to move. Whenever they started getting used to being in a place, they had to leave again to another country where everything is different: the laws that affect them, the language, the climate, etc. And each time, they once again have to wait years for a real chance to build a stable and dignified life which every human being should have.
When we asked Ali what was the most valuable thing while going through all this, he replied “my friends”.
Ali, who after spending 3 years in Greece has been in Nice for 8 months, told us about a similar experience of the two women. However, the main difference from Germany is that there are no refugee camps in France. Asylum seekers are assisted by civil society (NGOs) rather than government authorities. On the video call with Ali, we could get a glimpse of the house where he lives. He explained there are many NGOs involved in finding accommodation for young people in the homes of French families willing to help. He is also waiting to complete the asylum request process. He likes France and feels more accepted there than in Greece because the society is multicultural. Listening to his story – his migration journey started in 2014 and passed through Syria, Jordan, Turkey, and Greece – we realized that when people are forced to live day by day, the help of a trusted person can change their life. Indeed, when we asked him what was the most valuable thing while going through all this, he replied “my friends”. Namely, the social network is a channel for the flow of vital information and support, it is an essential element to consider for understanding the paths and implications of migrants’ lives. Also, Shakiba confirmed this when we asked if in Germany there was something unexpected or disappointing for her: “For us, there wasn’t any unexpected thing or situation because, speaking with people we know, we were aware of all the conditions of refugees here, maybe not all but at least 50% of it”.
From a political perspective, these stories show how much legislation providing a robust reception and inclusion system can affect human lives and migration pathways. Also, they reveal the difference between a formal and a substantive recognition of human rights. Indeed, it is true that Greece grants refugee people the right to asylum but then does not allow them to profit from this right.
Finally, there is a sentence by the writer Warsan Shire that we should keep in mind when trying to understand the risky choices of migrants and their courage in starting over and over again, not even knowing if it will lead to a positive decision: “no one puts their children in a boat unless the sea is safer than the land”.
*Names changed for protective reasons.