Nea Kavala camp residents: their contexts in the Middle East

Written by Sandra Diaferia, a short-term ESC volunteer at OCC Greece.

During my time at the Open Cultural Center (OCC) in Polykastro from October to November 2023, I encountered asylum seekers from diverse backgrounds and countries, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, the State of Palestine, and Iran, as well as a significant community of Kurdish and Yazidi individuals from Syria and Iraq. Additionally, there were nationals from Sub-Saharan African countries, including people from Sudan. At Open Cultural Center, a variety of languages could be heard, such as Arabic, Kurdish, Farsi, Turkish, and French. These individuals typically aim to reach countries like Germany, the Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada, viewing Greece as a transit point. Many already have a destination in mind when they depart from their home countries (Alexis Gkatsis, OCC Greece Coordinator, personal communication, 2023), though plans often change during transit due to various interferences and obstacles (Schapendonk, 2011). Transit migration, as described by Schapendonk (2011), is rarely a straightforward journey but rather a zigzagging process involving periods of waiting and immobility (f.e. Van Houtum, 2012; Van Houtum & Bueno Lacy, 2019) (Schapendonk & Steel, 2014). Nearly all asylum seekers express a desire to leave Greece once they receive asylum. However, each country may serve as a place of origin, transit, or destination at different times and for different individuals (f.e. Collyer et al., 2012; Collyer & Samers, 2017). In some instances, individuals consider staying in Greece temporarily to learn the language and save money before moving on to another country. The decision to leave Greece is influenced by various push-pull factors, including economic motivations and existing networks. Greece’s limited job opportunities drive many to seek opportunities in Northern countries where employment is more abundant. Additionally, individuals often choose specific countries due to existing connections or a desire to reunite with family members. It’s uncommon for asylum seekers to venture to countries where they lack personal connections.

Countries of origin: a short look at the Middle East

“Hey guys, let’s start off today’s lesson with a question: What does the concept of ‘home’ mean to you?” This is how I introduced one of my lessons with my former students, all in their twenties, many of whom had left their home countries. Through this casual conversation, it became evident that for each of them, home was primarily associated with family, followed closely by their countries of origin. However, a shared experience among them was the trauma of violence—whether it was the sound of bombs echoing nearby or the loss of friends and relatives in what should have been the safety of their home nations. In Nea Kavala Camp, where a strong sense of belonging and national identity prevails, children often express their connection to home by drawing the flags of their respective countries. The concept of home, for them, invokes memories of family, friends, and the emotional ties to their countries of origin in the Middle East and Africa. Yet, amidst these heartfelt connections, a pressing question arises: Why do people leave their homelands, braving perilous circumstances to seek refuge in the EU? The motivations behind migration vary between these two continents. While migrants from the Middle East flee due to security concerns, African emigration is predominantly driven by economic factors, despite instances like Sudan, where a decade-long conflict persists. One of my former students shared a poignant account of losing numerous friends in the struggle for their homeland.

Figure 1: Middle East countries (Wikitravel-The Free Travel Guide, 2023, Middle East – Wikitravel)

Middle Eastern countries are not all emigrating countries. For instance, nations such as Saudi Arabia, Oman, UAE, Qatar, and Kuwait boast considerable wealth, resulting in minimal emigration from these regions. However, despite their affluence, they have chosen to close their borders to neighboring asylum seekers (former resident volunteer, personal communication, 2023). Consequently, individuals from countries such as Syria, Iraq, and Iran seek refuge in nations like Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, or Europe (Center for Preventive Action, 2023). Obtaining a Schengen visa proves challenging for these nationalities, leading many to enter the EU through irregular means before seeking asylum. On the other hand, individuals from countries like Lebanon often find it easier to secure Schengen visas (former resident volunteer, personal communication, 2023). This discrepancy in visa accessibility underscores the EU’s implicit categorisation of refugees as either “acceptable migrants” or “undesirable political adversaries,” based on their country of origin and economic status (Van Houtum & Boedeltje, 2009).

Syria

One of the Middle Eastern countries from which a significant number of inhabitants have fled is Syria, with an estimated 14,000,000 people having emigrated since the onset of the civil war in 2011 (former resident volunteer, personal communication, 2023). The Syrian civil war has sparked an international humanitarian crisis for civilians. The conflict began when rebels formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA), leading to widespread insurrection (History.Com Editors, 2018). Initially, the war pitted the Assad government—backed by Russia and Iran—against Syrian rebels—supported by the United States and European allies such as France, the United Kingdom, and Italy, as well as regional players like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates (Center for Preventive Action, 2023). However, the conflict grew increasingly complex over time (History.Com Editors, 2018). Daesh, also known as ISIS, joined the fight against the Syrian regime (History.Com Editors, 2019), gaining prominence throughout the region in 2013 (History.Com Editors, 2019). However, Daesh gradually lost power in Syria as the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Defense Forces (SDF), backed by the United States, reclaimed 98% of the territory, including the city of Raqqa (Center for Preventive Action, 2023) (former resident volunteer, personal communication, 2023).

Currently, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad controls approximately 70% of the country. The SDF, which holds sway over most of northeastern Syria, is engaged in conflicts with Turkey, which also controls areas along the northern border. Meanwhile, an alarming 7 out of 10 Syrians require humanitarian assistance, and there are an estimated 5.2 million Syrian refugees in the region (Center for Preventive Action, 2023).

Iraq

While I was at OCC, many members of the community came from Iraq, particularly of Kurdish and/or Yazidi ethnicity, originally from the northern part of the country. Iraq is a diverse nation with various ethnic groups, including Kurds and Muslims. The country gained global attention due to the invasion led by the United States coalition in 2003, in light of their “war on terror”. This invasion ultimately brought an end to Saddam Hussein’s regime, amid assertions by some U.S. Government officials of a connection between Saddam and the radical Islamist militant organization al-Qaeda from 1992 to 2003 (Wikipedia, 2024), founded by Osama bin Laden.
Currently, while job opportunities exist in Iraq, the primary reason for emigration is the genocide of the Yazidi people by Daesh, considered one of the largest genocides. Despite this, Kurdish individuals harbour a desire to return to their homeland, which lies not in Iraq but in Kurdistan. Unfortunately, the situation remains perilous, particularly in urban areas (former resident volunteer, personal communication, 2023), as witnessed in the tragic events in the city of Kocho, where all inhabitants were killed (former student at OCC, personal communication, 2023). It’s anticipated that in the summer of 2024, a significant number of Yazidi individuals will seek to travel to the EU (long-term volunteer at OCC, personal communication 2024).

Afghanistan & Pakistan

Figure 2: Map of Afghanistan & Pakistan (https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-geographic-map-afghanistan-pakistan-important-cities-close-image92794834)

Asylum seekers temporarily residing in Nea Kavala Camp also come from Afghanistan and Pakistan, both Islamic countries. Afghanistan, situated between Central and South Asia, is known for its multiethnic population (Nova Lection, 2021a). In recent times, there has been a notable increase in Afghan citizens seeking refuge in the EU and neighbouring countries, such as Pakistan, which already in the past hosted Afghan refugees who were born in Pakistan as a reaction to the 9 years of Soviet war between 1979 and 1989 (Nova Lectio,2021b).

The exodus of Afghan citizens gained momentum in August 2021, following the Taliban’s seizure of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, and their control over the presidential palace (AFP, 2021). Subsequently, with the closure of embassies and the suspension of international flights, citizens found themselves stranded and unable to access diplomatic assistance (former resident volunteer, personal communication, 2023).

Kurdistan

Figure 3: geographic location of Kurdistan (Mittwoch, 2012, Kurdish Culture: Population of Greater Kurdistan and the estimated population of the Kurds )

During my stay at OCC, a significant number of asylum seekers attending our lessons came from Kurdistan, a region not officially recognised as a state, encompassing parts of Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. The Kurdish people, constituting one ethnic group spread across these countries, hold diverse religious beliefs; some are Sunni Muslims, while others are Christians, Yazidis, or atheists. Historically, the majority of Kurds were Yazidis, but due to pressures from Muslims, they faced limited choices: convert to Islam, pay to practice Yazidi beliefs, or risk persecution and death. The strength of the Muslim majority meant that Kurds of other religions were unable to offer significant assistance to the Yazidis, leading to a sense of estrangement among some Yazidis from their Kurdish identity (former resident volunteer, personal communication, 2023).

“When I was 12 years old, I saw a man being shot in front of my eyes”

(former resident volunteer, personal communication, 2023)

The Syrian territory inhabited by Kurdish people serves as a testament to the country’s resilience, showcasing not only a land from which people have fled but also a stronghold of endurance, epitomized by Rojava in North Syria. In the midst of a decade-long conflict, Rojava has established a model of direct democracy, asserting control over the autonomous region. The Democratic Union Party (PYD) has taken the reins in the Autonomous Region of North East Syria (AANES), marking a triumph for the Kurdish populace. Since the ratification of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, which rendered them stateless, Kurds have endured persecution under the policies of Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq. The AANES has encountered numerous internal and external challenges in its quest for democracy, contending with opposing ideologies and interests from key actors in the Syrian war (Terral A., 2021-2022). In Syria, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) predominantly battle against the Turkish regime led by Erdoğan, which seeks to expel Kurds from the border zone through bombardments targeting both the area and its civilian inhabitants (The Washington Post, 2019). This reality was poignantly expressed by one of my former students, who, despite his young age, has already experienced significant hardships, including the loss of family members and the denial of educational opportunities due to his Kurdish ethnicity. 

In neighboring Iraq, along the border with Syria, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has staunchly fought for the Kurdish cause and the protection of the dwindling Yazidi population. Operating on dual fronts, the PKK confronts the Turkish army to the west and the Islamic State group to the east. The Kurdish Rebel Movement PKK has accused Ankara of supporting the Islamic State group (French 24, 2015). 

Notably, a distinguishing feature of various Kurdish parties and rebel groups is the prominent role of women, who actively participate both on the battlefield and within the emerging political structures, exemplified by the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) (Pendavingh, 2017).

After outlining the situations in various countries asylum seekers come from, my next article aims to delve into Turkey, a key transit country for individuals seeking asylum in the EU. However, rather than focusing on the well-known EU-Turkey Agreement, my analysis will pivot towards examining the experiences of migrants during their stays in Turkey, the challenges they encounter during the crossing to Greece and the legal framework pertaining to international protection.

Resources

Facebooktwitterlinkedinmail