The bus station in Thessaloniki

Arif © Fortress Europe


“Where it is established, on the basis of proof or circumstantial evidence (…) that an applicant has irregularly crossed the border into a Member State by land, sea or air having come from a third country, the Member State thus entered shall be responsible for examining the application for international protection” 

Dublin Regulation, the famous article 13
Who decides where refugees stay?

Again, even though names are changed, all the details are exactly like Arif personally described them to me. 

THE TABLE IS SET AND THE TELEVISION RUNS in the background. Kurdish fills the buzzing kitchen. It’s the same news station they listen to every night, picked up from over a thousand kilometres away. Arif grabs another glass from the cupboard while his sister is nagging him from the table. “Come on! Sit down! The rice is getting cold.” His mother passes him with the last steaming pan of soup. She takes off her oven-gloves and puts them aside. “Come, Arif, sit down. Jala, let him be.” 
              It’s another one of those meals. The first five minutes everything is peaceful. They pass around pots and salt and olives. Then Arif can’t take it anymore and restarts the discussion. “Mom, we have to talk about this!” His mother blatantly ignores him and spoons another bite into her mouth. “It’s delicious, Mom.” Jala chips in. “Come on! We can’t live like this. You’ve heard what they did in Afrin. You have to let me go!” 

It’s March 2018. Erdogan had pushed into Kurdistan, Northern Syria, Afrin District and called it Operation Olive Branch. It caused international outrage and signalled a shift in Erdogan’s policy towards the Kurds. For Arif and his family, it was a sign they might no longer be safe in Turkey. 

Today the trigger was something his boss had said earlier. Arif was slicing doner off the rotisserie, mindlessly stuffing bread like he had been doing for one and a half years now. The radio in the corner talked of the Turkish offensive in Kurdistan in the town of Afrin itself. Triumphantly, his boss said, “See, we’ve still got it! Finally, they’re doing something!” And he slammed the counter. Arif kept quiet, like he always did. His boss paid no attention to him. They both knew they were talking about Arif’s hometown. Or rather his former hometown.

He originally fled Afrin in 2013, the year he turned 18. He only just escaped army conscription. The Free Syria Army, the Syrian Government, even the Kurdish Pashmerga, they were all eager to enlist young men. He fled alone that first time, following in the footsteps of a friend who had left the year before. A job as a bellboy awaited him in a countryside hotel where his friend worked too. He’d open doors of luxury cars and heave luggage upstairs. 

Broken phone conversations and an occasional dramatic Skype call continued to connect Arif to his birthplace. Two years passed. When he recounts this period of time, his eyes light up with excited nostalgia. The football fields, his apartment, the glowing hills. Then, things changed. The Syrian war spread. His family back in Afrin was planning their escape. 

New refugees arrive with their bags on victoria square, Athens

Arif © Fortress Europe

He met them in Istanbul, almost three years after he had left Syria. It was the first time he could hold his Mom in his arms again after all those years. “I was crying with joy when I had you in my arms again.” His mom mentions with a hint of reproach in her voice, as she picks up her glass. “Letting you go was my biggest mistake and I won’t allow it again.” She takes a sip and sets the glass back down, as if that’s the end of the argument. However, deep down, she must know he is right. For Kurds, Turkey might not be safe much longer. 

The dinner table discussions become ever more frequent. It takes Arif two months of persistent arguing, but eventually everybody agrees. They will try to reach Greece. They won’t do it Arif’s way, though. He wanted to send one boy ahead – be it himself, or his younger brother – and apply for family reunification upon arrival. His mother is resolute: If they’re going, they’re sticking together. And that’s how they do it. Somehow, they scramble together enough money for one collective crossing: 8.800 euros.
         However, there’s one major downside. If they’re paying for all five of them, there’s only enough money to get them into Greece. Not beyond. “It’s just so unfair!” Arif would tell me later. “It would’ve been really easy. If we had taken all that money and given it to my little brother, he could’ve made it to Amsterdam easily. And then all of us could live there now.”

They turn the key. The apartment is left as if they’re just going on vacation. The green couch in the middle of the room, the tv turned off, the cutlery cleaned one last time before being sorted into the drawers. A painful memory of the home they tried to make for themselves. They’re on the road again.
           It’s a Sunday morning, March 25, 2018. The group of 20, everyone distantly related, walks the last bit of the journey through the morning dew. Like Yousif, they too walked to the border from the Edirne area. They crossed the river Evros with a small rubber boat and are now hiking to the safe haven via a small country road.
          Arif looks at his bald cousin walking next to him. He’s busy typing on his phone. Via WhatsApp, he’s giving their third-party contact the green light to release the money for the smuggler. “We made it, make the transfer, the password is…” A string of numbers follows. From Arif’s family, the total sum of 8.800 euros is in that account. All that’s left of their savings now is a few hundred euros in notes, which are securely stored in his mother’s bra.

Apartments in Volvi camp, an hour out of Thessaloniki, the type of housing made available for refugees

The school building where Arif lives with his family.

police officers in the local office in omonia where I got most of my information on illegal migrants in Athens

Arif © Fortress Europe

While they’re on their way, the smuggler provides them a final service. He calls the police. Within 5 minutes, the officers arrive to arrest all 20 of them. It saves them the walk to the police station. 
         They get checked at a rural station and are then transferred to a criminal facility, where they spend 10 days locked up. “They asked us if we wanted to let the women go to the women’s facility, because it’s clean. We let them go there, because we knew our part was really bad. So we stayed in the dirty part.” Arif later recounts. His 15 year old brother is allowed to go with his mom. His sisters leave too. They are grown now – 19 and 21 years old. Arif, 24 at the time, is left with his cousins. Their facility has showers, but Arif is so disgusted by them that he puts off showering for a whole week. They sleep in a giant cell that is holding at least 40 people, most of them avoiding the showers. I try to imagine what that must have smelled like after a week. Arif too can’t stand it anymore and yields to the icy water. 

After 10 days, they finally receive a Police Note (which allows you to stay temporarily and apply for asylum) and the gates open. 110 migrants are now walking through the front doors. UNHCR had secured placements for all of them in a refugee camp near Thessaloniki – Diavata camp.
         It’s a holiday in Greece, so UNHCR isn’t providing free transport. However, they arranged a bus company to drive the 110 migrants to Diavata in their stead. The company demands a 50 euro fee per passenger. Arif’s mom discretely fumbles around and produces 250 euros. It reduces their savings to a mere 200 euros. The journey takes a couple of hours and when they arrive at the refugee camp, it’s already 2am, the middle of the night. 

Their new home is a container that served as the camp’s primary school, but has been repurposed to house the excess migrants. Yet Arif remembers their arrival with great joy. “They were so kind to us there!” They get tea and cookies, and camp managers set up extra shower cabins for them. A volunteer organisation that took care of the kids, entertaining and teaching them over the following days to alleviate the boredom. Arif remembers their names. “There was Mauricio, he was the manager, and he always shared bananas and apples. Oh, and Lisa. She was also an Italian, and she really helped me with my English. She was very patient.”
          It is a happy 10 days. They are the first days since he left his home that he feels some sense of justice, that someone is taking care of him while all he is trying to do is escape the disasters going on in his own home.

No matter where you look, opinions about refugees feature everywhere in Thessaloniki

Arif © Fortress Europe

Yet, ironically, this same period of happiness also contains the most heartbreaking news of their trip. On day five, by which time they have learned their ways around the camp, which volunteers to ask for an extra apple and which bathrooms are the cleanest, UNHCR comes by for a briefing. The Greek holidays are over and they have brought a translator with them to officially welcome the newcomers. In front of the school building, they gather the crowd and go through some basic info: All migrants need to officially apply for asylum if they want to stay in the camp. They have the right to leave. A new facility will house them if they decide to stay. And a few more of such formalities. 

After the speech is over, Jala pulls Arif’s sleeve. “Come, this is the moment, let’s ask!” Jala has the best English of the five of them and she isn’t shy. They approach the woman who led the gathering. “Excuse me,” Jala asks. “We heard that it’s also possible to apply to go to Holland. Can we do that here?”
          The woman, dressed in the formal UN blue, turns around and looks at the two young Kurds. She was busy flipping through a folder, but as she notices them, her face takes on a sincere, apologetic frown. “I’m so sorry.” She tells the two. “We don’t do that anymore. That was years ago. If you apply here, you stay here.” 

Arif remembers that exact moment very well. It was a turning point in his journey. His heart sank into his boots. He felt like that was his last shot at reaching Amsterdam. 

6 months after the transfer that UNHCR promised, Arif, Jala and their family are lucky enough to find an apartment through a friend. It’s only half an hour outside the city centre, and most importantly, it’s theirs alone. On the surface, it seems like they are doing just fine. Arif works for a simcard company, his sister is back in school, his brother started an economics course. But Arif remains restless.
            “My brother tried to get out last year.” He says. “He bought a fake ID and tried to leave by plane, but was caught.” Arif hopes to get a passport from a friend in Germany, one that he could use to fly to Amsterdam with. 

In one of our Skype sessions, I comment on a beautiful wooden closet in the back of the room, behind Arif. He takes me for a tour. He tells me that the closet belongs to the owner. He pulls on the doors. “See”, he shows, “They’re closed. He doesn’t want us to use it.” Everywhere they live is temporary, not theirs to settle in. 
              The image of his green couch in Turkey never left him. The furniture they bought there, thinking they could finally build a life. It brings up traumatic memories. Here in Greece, he refuses to spend money on furniture for their new house.  “There’s no point. We will only abandon it again when we leave.” He says, against better judgement. He started occasionally bringing up the topic of moving at the dinner table again. He knows his mom can’t stand it, but stays convinced that’s the only way to start a life. Because here, in Greece, he’s stuck in limbo.

On of the simcard branches Arif works for

The centre of Djavata camp is made up of container buildings. Yousif used to squat one of them. 

Housing in Volvi camp, I visit in Thessaloniki

Arif © Fortress Europe

I met Arif in Thessaloniki. He had helped a friend out, who wanted to share his story with me, but didn’t have a great command of English. We spend a long, chilly evening discussing in a public square. Cafes had already closed because of the virus. Sitting on a stone wall with a cup of tea in our hands, we started the ‘Leaving-Greece-Discussion’. I was convinced you can’t apply for asylum in the Netherlands the way Arif wanted, once you’ve already applied for asylum here, in Greece. Arif, on the other hand, was convinced he knew people who had applied again, in Germany at least. It took me the help of a couple of lawyers and some of my own research, until I realised that he was, in fact, right. 

Who decides where refugees stay? Can you pick your own country? Are they distributed over the EU? Currently, when you make it into the EU, you have to apply for asylum in the first country you arrive in. If not, the country you move on to can send you back to the first country. That’s the essence of the Dublin Regulation, Article 13 quoted above.    
       When you come by plane, that can be any EU country. But often, you arrive through one of the countries at the border of the EU: Spain, Italy, or Greece.
 When Arif and Jala originally arrived in Greece, Greece was obligated under Dublin to conduct their interview and decide on their status: it carries the full administrative burden. In case they travel to Amsterdam, the Dutch government can send them back to Greece. According to the law at least. The system is enforced using the Eurodac (fingerprint) database: because you have the fingerprints of refugees, you know where they’ve been.

From a friend in Holland, I learned a neat trick to circumvent this rule: if you secretly stay in a country long enough, you can re-apply with a clean slate. She entered through the Czech Republic, where she applied for asylum, but continued on to Holland. Of course, Holland could send her back, or at least ignore her request. But in Holland, you get this ‘clean slate’ after 18 months. My friend lived like a shadow in Rotterdam for the full 18 months and applied again. She’s now nearing the end of her process and probably very close to receiving a residence permit. 
             Lawyers found another way, specific to Greece. In 2011, a judge ruled that it was not safe for refugees to be sent back to Greece. That sending them back would be a violation of their rights. Deportations back to Greece were completely stopped. The European Commission has since told countries to start deporting people back to Greece again. But of the nearly 10,000 incoming requests in 2018 (by other EU countries, to Greece)  a total of 18 people have been transferred. 18 of the 10,000 that should have actually been transferred! You can clearly see the drop in the number of transfers from 2011 onwards in the EU transfer statistics, which are definitely worth having a quick look at. 
           Another striking exception is that Germany decided to completely ignore the Dublin Regulation in 2015 and just give Syrian nationals the chance to apply for asylum, whether they had passed through another country or not. 

Such challenges to the system led to the publication of reports with names like “To Dublin or Not To Dublin“, questioning whether or not the system really works, and if we should really spend all those hours filing the 10,000 applications for transfers to Greece if they’re not going to happen anyway. Should we overthrow the Dublin system and think of another way to decide which country should handle the asylum claim for asylum seekers entering Europe?

For all intents and purposes, Arif is right. It is still possible to apply in another EU country after you’ve been registered in Greece.