A kid spends his day at Victoria square

Athens © Fortress Europe


“Acts of persecution as qualified in paragraph 1 can, inter alia, take the form of 

(a) acts of physical or mental violence, including acts of sexual violence; (b) legal, administrative, police, and/or judicial measures which are in themselves discriminatory (…); (e) prosecution or punishment for refusal to perform military service in a conflict, [etc.]” 

Qualification Directive, Article 9
Who decides whether you’re a refugee?

MY ALARM BEEPS. It’s 6.30, day 2 in Athens. A friend of a friend offered to host me, he’s nicknamed Aps. I’m curled up on a soft grey sofa in an otherwise empty room. My running gear lies prepared in the living room, picked so that it’s suited both for sports as well as for an interview. A chic-but-comfy black turtleneck and a pair of simple, grey sweatpants. I get dressed, even put on some make-up, and strap a pouch around my waist. My camera is on the table and I manage to squeeze it in. In its backpocket I store my passport, and – as usual – my phone with earplugs. I grab the keys, and step out under a cool, blue sky.

A security guard from the Asylum Office performed a smart trick to get rid of me yesterday. After the ferry arrived at the port and I had dropped the backpack at Aps’, I started visiting some key organisations in Athens. The Red Cross Hospital, legal and humanitarian NGOs, shelters, UNHCR. My feet were sore by the end of it. The Asylum Service was among my stops. I want to know what the ‘door’ looks like that people knock on when they apply for asylum. At the entrance, I found a couple of guards and asked them if I could enter. “You can’t right now,” was the reply, “but tomorrow morning at 7am, we’re open for questions.” I called his bluff.
         They’ll probably just send me away, so I don’t bother skipping my morning run and integrate the visit. 15 minutes later I jog into the lines of asylum seekers waiting on the pavement.

When you cross into a country illegally and don’t apply for asylum, you risk being deported. And life is hard. You’re not allowed to see a doctor (unless it’s an emergency of course), work, go to school, rent a house. So if you don’t want to live in the shadows, you better apply.
           Once you’ve applied, conditions improve. The ‘Reception Conditions Directive’ explains that the government should provide you with housing, access to food, education and, within 6 months, the right to work. Also within 6 months of your application, your case should have been decided. If you’ve been granted refugee status, you have very similar rights to normal citizens and are expected to stand on your own two feet. You pay for your own medical insurance, get to start education, find a job, travel and get your own place to live. Within a couple of weeks, you have to leave the camps you could live in before. You’re like a resident now, even though it might only be temporary. 

So we have: Undocumented migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. You decide yourself to become an asylum seeker by applying. Following that, how exactly is your case going to be decided? Is it a list of boxes you should check? 

EU countries agreed on a general list of characteristics that make you a refugee. You can read them in the Qualifications Directive, quoted above. Note that it’s a ‘Directive’: There are no clear rules, only general guidelines. 

7.30am. Asylum seekers stand in line.

The exit of athens’ asylum office, with guards around the corner

Athens © Fortress Europe

The people I stand between today could be here for a couple of reasons. The most common is probably the renewal of their asylum ID, the Ausweis. That’s the same card the people in Moria had, it applies throughout all of Greece. Depending on nationality, renewal is a routine that repeats every month for some, and every six months for others. Of course, getting the renewal is nothing compared to fleeing a war-torn country, but it’s still an annoying bureaucratic necessity. 
             The woman next to me in line flicks through her phone mindlessly. She tells me that she prefers to get up early and show up at dawn when she’s due. The lines are shorter this early in the day. A girl in white sneakers and skinny jeans supports her grandmother as they walk from the bus stop to the line. Her grandmother is a sizeable, crooked lady who is dressed in black cloth from head to toe. She shuffles towards the fences and holds onto them while her granddaughter negotiates with the security guard. He won’t let them skip the line. So amidst the legs of the others queuing, the old lady carefully sits down on the sidewalk and stares into the distance. No matter if you’re old, you have to show up and get the renewal. 

The lines are actually not so bad this morning. Before too long, I’m hurried past a security guard, who mindlessly runs a metal detector across my chest and legs, while another takes my pouch for inspection. On the other side of the fences, a stern and bored looking guard awaits me. “ID please”. When I present my Dutch passport, he looks up. “You want to apply for asylum in Greece?” he asks, confused, and starts telling me to book an application appointment through Skype. 

To apply for asylum, you have to make an appointment first. You do that through Skype. It’s a notorious service. In the latest official country report by AIDA (2018), the Skype system is called the “Achilles Heel” of the Greek Asylum Service, because it’s so hard to book an appointment. The Greek information page for migrants refers to it in their Q&A:

Q: “I tried to get through so many times but I never succeeded. What can I do?”
      A: “It is very challenging and requires a lot of luck to manage to book an appointment through Skype. It can sometimes take several months until you get through.”

Migrants are advised to log their attempts, so that in case police ask for identification, at least they can show they have tried to register. I talk to a girl in a community centre in Athens, who lived in hiding for months, because she and her boyfriend couldn’t secure the appointment to get their papers. Besides the uncertain lives they lived, they also never got the right to visit hospitals or go to school. 
              Back in the Netherlands I try to book a Skype appointment. From the safety of my home, I check the schedule. It’s Thursday, 11.20 Greek time. That means the Arab service should be online. The service works with an hourly schedule, in which each hour caters to another mother tongue. I find “asylum.service.arabic”, and dial. Nothing. 

Victoria square in Athens is known as a migrant hub.

Athens © Fortress Europe

 I interrupt him. “No, I’m only here for a question.” I say. He nods. That makes more sense. He points me to the lines behind the building. I follow a flow of migrants over trampled grass along a little dirt path to the back of the building. White tents are erected to protect the waiting mass of people from sun and rain as they sit on neatly lined benches on either side of the canvas walls.
            There is some space available on the bench to the left, next to a young woman. Her hair is tied into a bun and she wrapped a purple hijab around it. She’s fiddling with a cardWhile we wait, a security guard orchestrates the movement of asylum seekers to the offices. Once you’re in front of the line, he beckons you through a gap in the metal fences, on to one of the large windows in a row of containers. The women inside, uniformly dressed in blue attire, press a button to activate the microphone and take your asylum card through a hole in the glass.

The process unfolds a few times. Then the security guard interrupts the regular pattern. “Interview!” He shouts. “Interview!” A man at the end of the line is the only one to respond. He raises his hand. The guard walks over. “Country?” “Pakistan.” he responds hesitantly. The Pakistani gets to skip the line. He walks past the containers, towards even larger tents that are set up between ours and the brick building. Then he disappears from sight. His fate will now be decided, separated from us by no more than two thin walls.

The actual decision process starts with an interview: 1 session with a case worker and a translator. You show them documents you have collected on your case – news articles about your home town, photos you took – and explain yourself. They, in turn, get to ask questions. “If it was so dangerous, why did your sister stay behind?” “What happened to the uncle who helped you?” Yousif’s interview took 6 hours and the transcript he has lying around in his apartment somewhere covers 32 pages. 
           The details to what the process should look like is explained in the Asylum Procedures Directive. Countries then individually decide how they train their case workers, what country of origin information they present, etc. That means there can be big differences in the types of decisions countries make. Afghans applying for asylum in Italy, for example, get the status in 92% of cases, 76% in Greece, 38% in Austria, and not even 2% in Bulgaria – each a country with a significant number of applications. 
              Similarly, whoever happens to be sitting across from you makes a difference, how much time pressure they are under and whether you have a lawyer by your side. I spoke to one of the just over a dozen lawyers who cover more than 20.000 asylum seekers in Moria, to indicate how many applications are carried out without access to a lawyer. This process of deciding on refugee status is hardly studied, in part because of the sensitive information in the interviews. And because countries seem to prefer the mystery

That, the unequal numbers and the mystery, is what’s called the ‘Asylum Lottery’. Can you think of a different way to decide who is a refugee?

I pass the time speaking with the Greek lawyer Elini. She and her client sit further up on the bench and explain what’s going on around us. We exchange phone numbers and arrange a meeting later that week. Finally, it’s my turn. As expected, I get referred from counter to counter, only to be sent on my way with a fairly unhelpful email address. “You can send your questions here.” Is the advice. 

My attempt at ‘knocking on Greece’s door’ and applying for asylum

Laundry machines in a community centre, reserved twice a week for homeless refugees who fell through the cracks of the national Social Security system

The Entrance to the community centre

An NGO maps refugee facilities around Athens

Athens © Fortress Europe

In the days I spend in Athens, it becomes clear to me that official institutions in the big city have very little interest in talking to me, let alone openly. Either they are weary of questions, or are simply too busy. However, the big city has its benefits too. Migrants are everywhere, and very easy to talk to.

What I learn is that many of the migrants I talk to – that is, the ones I can access in public places – have some story with the police. They try to avoid them, because so many have been detained or arbitrarily searched. It’s a fact of life. And so I decide to pay the police a visit, to hear their story. I find the local police station in Omonia, a neighbourhood known for its large share of migrants.

“Your ID was stolen?” The policeman stands in front of me, ashing a cigarette. He tries to make sense of my question. “No, that’s not it. I was just hoping to speak to someone about IDs. How often do you go out to check people in Athens for IDs?” He smiles a little uncomfortably, shouts something at a colleague and then points me to the security booth. “His English is good.”
           In that security booth I find an officer more than willing to explain the intricacies of Athens’ migration law enforcement to me. And he’s in a great position to do so. He is young, not much older than 20. In his short career he was employed at two migration hubs consecutively. His first placement was at the airport, where he validated IDs. Here, in Omonia, he works with the team that searches undocumented migrants. 

“Yes, we mostly approach the people who look foreign and ask for their documents.” He starts out. Their team patrols Omonia, on set days more than others, with the sole purpose of checking IDs. According to him – and I haven’t found a way to verify these numbers – more than half of the people he approaches is unable to produce valid identification. Cards are expired, the person has none, or, in rare cases, carries a false card.
          These blatantly selective raids are later confirmed by a journalist I speak to. He messages me: “I saw [a raid] at the airport in Athens yesterday. Every dark person was asked for papers, and a couple were even carried off.” The young officer is clear about what this means for those migrants who try to make a living here. “Those who have indoor jobs can stay under the radar for years.” He says. Cleaners, sewers, nannies. For others, the streets are a really high risk.

The IOM building in Thessaloniki, like many offices of the larger institutions, pretty and well-maintained.

Athens © Fortress Europe

What I find even more fascinating is that he is the first to confirm, from an official’s perspective, that attempting to leave Greece by plane with fake ID cards is actually a common phenomenon. “I think on a normal day at the airport, I would confiscate 20 or 30 fakes.” He shares proudly. He’s starting to enjoy the conversation. He leans back against the wall, his hands tucked under his ballistic vest, something I see many police officials do.
            “And then what?” I ask. “See, that’s the problem. We really don’t get enough funding here. Say I catch you with a fake ID here on the streets, you might actually go to jail, but there in the airports, we don’t have the capacity to do that. So the only thing we can do is take away the ID card, and let the person go.” This confirms the story I’ve heard over and over again. Yousif tried it. “The police told me, next time, pick a Bulgarian nationality, man. Then we at least won’t catch you on your language skills.” Yousif laughs, quoting the airport guard who caught him. 

“So where do they get these cards?” I want to know. “Everywhere!” The official exclaims. “Everyone knows someone. Even in the streets, here in Omonia, you can always find a way to get a card. Just ask anyone.” Prices range from 300 to a couple of thousand euros, he explains. The latter will fool airport security, the former will still pass an unwatchful eye. A 50 will buy you one that he says he’s able to pick out at first glance. And then there are the cards you borrow from friends in the West that are real, but the photo on it doesn’t actually look like you. Migrants later tell me slightly different stories. That you can get good ones for a 50 too. Or that a couple of thousand euros can buy you a guaranteed exit where you’re entitled to an endless supply of cards until you make it. 

But everyone agrees on one thing: You can get these fakes anywhere in Athens.

I decide I will try to find one and convince Aps, my host, to join me. It was a smart move, his Greek comes in handy. It’s 10pm, I’m at a café and wrap up my discussion with Elini, the lawyer I met at the Asylum Office. Aps picks me up and we walk through the empty streets towards a square close to Omonia. It’s where weed is sold – whoever comes there might just have some useful connections, we figured.  

The Usual Collection Of Foreign Emblems In The Police Station’s Waiting Area

According to the officer, The majority of people in the streets of omonia don’t carry valid identity cards.

Athens © Fortress Europe

The concrete, graffiti covered buildings part to reveal a little plaza. A fountain quietly bubbles under the cool, dark sky, surrounded by palm trees. Without much secrecy, we’re approached, by a guy tucked away in an army-print hoodie and matching sweatpants. “You want to buy some weed?” He asks in Greek. We explain what we’re looking for, and he thinks for a moment. “Go to Omonia square. Any Pakistani there will know where to go.”

We follow his advice, and enter into the massive roundabout that is Omonia Square. A couple coffee shops are still open here and there. A man sits by a shop front with a winter jacket pulled around him and a bottle of liquor between his feet. The area looks nothing like the crowds that rush by with iced coffees and mobile phones during the day. We don’t see any Pakistanis. We look around and decide that the only way to meet people is by straying off the main road and trying our luck in the backstreets.

We pick one at random and enter. It’s a bit more lively here. A shisha bar with radiating bright blue lights and walls full of Betty Boop posters attracts our attention from across the street. We waste about an hour with a guy who is adamant about helping us, but more drunk than informative. It starts to bother me and I leave Aps with him. 
           As I walk across the street, I enter the first nightshop I see. Right outside the glass door an odd mix of men are sipping their beers on foldable chairs. They watch me enter. The Pakistani owner looks bored. “Yes?” I put on an apologetic voice, and explain I’m looking for an ID card ‘with a different birthday’. I take my driver’s licence from my wallet to clarify what I mean. The owner looks disconcerted, perhaps even a little annoyed. “I don’t know about that,” he says. Of course he doesn’t. He would probably risk his store if he did. 
          I walk out, intending to liberate Aps from the drunk. Then, to my surprise, one of the men in front of the store comes to the rescue. “I know what you’re looking for.” he says. Within 5 minutes, I’m on the phone with someone’s ‘brother’, who can get me an ID card. A good one that can get me through airport security.

So it’s true. There really are ID vendors at any street corner in Omonia. Unfortunately, the ‘brother’ pulls out of the deal the next day. My middle-man from the store messages me that he doesn’t understand why. I’ll never know whether they really could’ve sold me a flawless ID.

Omonia square by daytime