In Syntagma Square
Two hundred Syrians are camped on the pavement outside the Greek parliament in Athens. For two weeks, 150 of them have been on hunger strike. The interior ministry has handed out leaflets: ‘You have nothing to gain if you remain on Syntagma Square. You should follow the only way to a life with dignity. You should apply for asylum.’ The minister repeated the proposal on Tuesday, adding he would ask northern European countries to take them in instead, though he expected the answer would be no.
At least 29,000 Syrians have arrived in Greece this year, more than three times as many as in 2013. The crossing from Turkey costs thousands of euros. Whatever money they brought with them is long gone. Greece doesn’t have the infrastructure to cope with so many refugees.
They have no right to work until their asylum application is accepted. Once an application has been filed, it takes months for a decision to be reached. And even those who are granted asylum are unlikely to get jobs: the unemployment rate in Greece is over 25 per cent. A lot of people don’t claim asylum because they don’t want to stay in Greece: according to the Dublin Regulation, refugees are the responsibility of the EU state where they first claim asylum, and other states can return them there – which is why the Syrians demonstrating in Athens have declined the ministry's offer. (Though the European Court of Human Rights, observing that ‘the Dublin system must be applied in a manner compatible with the Convention’, has repeatedly found both Greece and the countries that send people back there guilty of violating asylum seekers’ rights.)
‘I want to go abroad and study medicine,’ 21-year-old Khaled told me in English. I apologised for the way my country is treating him and the other refugees. ‘It’s not you people,' he said. 'Greeks are suffering too, we know that. We want to leave.’
They try to go through the Balkans or by boat to Italy, praying they won’t be arrested in Greece. Border controls have become stricter, and there are other dangers too: one group of Syrians was robbed of what little they had left after crossing into Macedonia. 'They put a knife to my throat,' one of them told me. 'I told them to take my money, the last €2000 I had on me, but please don’t kill me.' Jan is 22; he came to Greece from Aleppo. He had been in Thessaloniki but came to Athens to take part in the protest. 'I can’t afford a place to stay anymore, so here' – pointing to the pavement – 'is as good as any place.'
The weather in Athens is getting colder. Nylon sheets are tied on the rails to provide some shelter from the rain. ‘We won’t eat,’ the hunger strikers say. ‘We won’t leave. We have nowhere else to go anyhow.’
Across the street, inside parliament, nothing meaningful is being done to help them. The rest of Europe isn’t much better. Britain has resettled only 100 Syrian refugees. Germany and Scandinavia are picking up those who make it out of Greece and Italy, but no help is arriving for the thousands trapped here.