Thousands of Syrians fleeing war and misery are making their way to Europe, and many are coming through Greece, whose Mediterranean islands stretch within tantalizing reach of home.
Once they get here, many wish they’d never come.
Greece’s economic meltdown has left little food, medicine or other aid for refugees washing up on its shores. The new arrivals are packed into detention camps, and those who stay longer hide in cramped, barren apartments, fearing anti-immigrant violence on the streets. At least 11,000 Syrians have been arrested for crossing into Greece without permission since the conflict started more than two years ago, with more arrested in the first four months of 2013 than in all of 2011.
With pressure building in crowded refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, Turkish officials have said in recent weeks that they will ask the United States and Europe to take in more refugees. But the reception in Greece suggests that refugees may face an uphill battle on a continent beset by a financial crisis and anxiety about a stream of foreigners.
“We imagined a European country that would be better for the future. If I had known there would be no jobs in Greece, we would have stayed in Turkey,” Ahmed Habash, 33, said one recent afternoon in the cramped, dark Athens apartment he shares with his wife, two sons and another Syrian man with whom they are splitting costs.
Treaties that govern the European Union’s external borders forbid Syrians who have reached Greece without visas from continuing further into Europe. So the refugees find themselves marooned in a country with 27 percent unemployment that has slashed social services for its own citizens.
“People arrive in Europe and they get treated worse than your worst nightmare. You get stuck in a cell, and you go in healthy and emerge sick,” said Petros Mastakas, an official at the Athens office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. At the crude reception camps that Greek authorities have set up on the tiny islands that dot the Aegean, which are more used to hosting wealthy tourists than desperate refugees, “you don’t get to go outside to walk for 10 minutes a day,” Mastakas said.
More than 34,600 Syrians have applied for asylum in E.U. countries since the conflict in their country started. The United Nations estimates that 1.6 million people have fled Syria and that 8,000 more are streaming out every day. Most of those who make it to Europe are middle-class, with enough money to afford the $3,000 to $10,000 that smugglers demand for passage and fake documents.
Habash and his wife, Rangen Hali, 34, floated into Greece late one night in mid-2012 on a cramped inflatable boat that ferried them across the Evros River that separates Turkey and Greece. At home in Aleppo, Syrian government forces had arrested Habash for a week, then released him, he said. The family knew it was time to go, even though Hali was eight months pregnant.
The smugglers dropped Habash, his wife and their four-year-old son in a forest and left them to wander, until they found a village. They turned themselves in to the Greek police, who put them in a crowded detention camp for a night, then let them go. The family made it to Athens, where, weeks later, Hali gave birth to a second son in a hospital by Caesarean section.
The nurses “treated me worse than everybody else,” she said. “Nobody even checked the wound for five days.”
There’s no money to go to the hospital now, she said, and the Greek government pays only for the worst emergencies. Sometimes, if the couple need medicine for the children and can scrape up the cash, they go to a pharmacy.
“There’s no saving” money, said Habash, who once had a steady job at a textile factory in Aleppo. “It’s just working to survive.” He covered a couple of months of rent on their apartment by painting the owner’s house, though the only way he will be able to pay it this month, he said, is because “God exists.”
Every day Habash and Hali carefully arrange the blankets on the cot on which their older son sleeps in the small entry foyer of the apartment. They cook Syrian cuisine on a portable two-burner electric stove. Many nights, Hali said, she and her husband skip dinner so that their sons have enough to eat.
Their older son, Rama, speaks a few words of Greek. Meran, their giggling 1-year-old son, likes to watch “Thomas the Tank Engine,” dubbed into Arabic.
Sometimes they go to a nearby playground, walking past ouzo bars and scruffy coffee shops to reach the swings and seesaws. But mostly they stay close to home, worried about being attacked by supporters of the anti-immigrant neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, which won 7 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections last year. All Syrian refugees in Greece know someone who has been attacked. The police, they say, do nothing.
“In the streets, we are afraid,” Hali said. “They don’t care about refugees here.”
Greece is scrambling to improve its asylum system, which accepts applications during a two-hour window every Saturday. Those who apply are thrown into police-administered detention, along with ordinary criminals, for up to 18 months while the country’s understaffed bureaucracy makes a decision.
Many applications are rejected, and the threat of detention leads the vast majority of the Syrian refugees in Greece to try to avoid authorities while they save enough money for a fake passport to get to northern Europe. Just 420 Syrians have applied for asylum in Greece since the beginning of 2012, according to U.N. figures. A new civilian-run asylum office will open in Athens this month, and officials intend to overhaul the application process when it does.
European leaders say they have not received significant numbers of requests from Syrians for resettlement, but they acknowledge the need to do more to help. Germany recently announced that it would resettle 5,000 refugees this month. Sweden also has taken many of those coming to Europe. But whether European countries could take significantly more refugees without popular backlash is another question, leaders say, with economies in recession and deep skepticism about whether the migrants would ever go home.
“Not as many people as we expected have come to Europe, by far,” said Cecilia Malmstroem, the E.U. commissioner for home affairs, who has pushed for Greece to improve its treatment of Syrian refugees and of migrants in general.
“The general attitude in Europe is rather restrictive today,” Malmstroem said. “We have never had as many xenophobic parties in political power since the Second World War.”
Many Syrians say they never expected Europe to show them a cold shoulder.
“We thought there was freedom, these beautiful countries,” said Hatim Khalaf, 45, a farmer from the Kurdish region of northeast Syria who lives in an Athens suburb with his three sons. “We see nothing of this beauty.”
Greek officials say that improvements will come as early as this month, when the full-time asylum center will put the process in the hands of civil servants instead of the police.
“In the last year, we have achieved more than we have achieved in the 10 years before that,” said Emmanouil Katriadakis, the official in charge of immigration issues for the Greek Public Order Ministry.
One couple said that not even nongovernmental organizations can meet their needs. They and their twin daughters, who were born a month premature in late April, are crammed into a 12-by-12-foot hotel room in an addict-ridden area of central Athens that a refugee organization is paying for. The room has no hot water, which poses a problem when they need to mix formula for the babies, who share their bed with their parents. A box of food staples — dried beans, pasta, some olive oil — that the aid group gave them lies useless at the foot of the bed. The family has no access to a kitchen.
“I thought the police would know Syria,” said the 26-year-old man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared for the safety of family members still in Damascus. “I thought they’d help you, that they’d tell you, ‘We’ll find a place for you to stay.’ ”
Elinda Labropoulou contributed to this report.