kids running up to their house in volvi camp

Camps © Fortress Europe


“Member States shall designate for all procedures a determining authority which will be responsible for an appropriate examination of applications (…). Member States shall ensure that such authority is provided with appropriate means, including sufficient competent personnel, to carry out its tasks (…).” 

Application Procedure Directive, Article 4
Are there enough resources?

SOME SEATS IN THE BACK OF THE BUS are still free, but when she walks in, Nadia happens to pick the one next to me. I nod to greet her and clear her seat. We sit silently for most of the 6-hour journey from Athens to Thessaloniki. When I go through my Arabic notes, she notices and starts a conversation. She used to be an Arab language teacher, back in Latakia, Syria, before she fled the war. Before we part in Thessaloniki, she invites me to visit her in the camp she lives in.

It’s a couple of days later when I take her up on her offer. The journey is not straightforward. I have a mark on Google maps and directions on which bus to take. The ride takes an hour and I chat with a man who is on his way to the camp, too. He is in his 30s and the hair of his beard is turning grey around his temples. At our next meeting, he’ll joke he wasn’t supposed to turn grey this early, but that he suffered too much stress in his life.
He introduces himself as Helmooth and offers me his phone number. “Just call me when you go back, I’ll come with you.” I’m not really interested, since I’m sure I can find the way back by myself. So I thank him, and decline. “Okay.” he shrugs, joins me from the bus to the camp and waves goodbye at the first apartment block. “Good luck!” He calls over his shoulder.


Nadia lives in Volvi camp, together with her sister and 11-year old daughter. It’s unlike any of the other camps I have seen so far and it intrigues me. Instead of tents and containers, I find apartment blocks. I walk around, looking for her place, and notice a big sign. “Apollonia Spa”. Around me houses carry obsolete guesthouse signs next to the IOM  posters listing announcements and camp rules (IOM the International Organisation for Migration, organising the camps together with the UNHCR and the Greek government). Volvi camp clearly used to be a holiday destination of some sort. Now it has a strangely dilapidated feel to it. With a makeshift hairsalon on the corner of the street, trampled grass in front of the buildings and laundry hanging from the balconies, it has long lost its holiday vibes. Nadia hates it there, she tells me. 
           Back in Holland I’m excited to find out that Google Street View stores photos of Volvi from 2014. It was still pink with flowers, with garden lanterns that stood upright, and green lawns. How did this resort become a refugee camp? 

Volvi camp just a few years earlier, in 2014. The lanterns on the gate still stand Upright, gardens are maintained, it radiates Normality. 

Camps © Fortress Europe

Is there currently enough money, staff and infrastructure to enforce the whole asylum system? Do you agree with the conditions that asylum seekers live in, given the current resources? And if not, what responsibility do EU countries have to support the countries who bear most of the costs?

Whichever country is responsible for someone’s application process is also responsible for the bureaucracy of the process and that person’s well being. That includes the interviews, decision processes and lawyers, but also housing and food for the period of time during which asylum seekers haven’t received their decision yet, since asylum seekers aren’t usually allowed to work just yet. Like many countries, Greece has very few resources for its asylum system. Think of money, staff and buildings. 
          For one, that means that camps in Greece aren’t great places to live in. Living conditions have long been criticised; for example, they played a big role in the court ruling that stopped deportations to Greece in 2011. On top of that, the fact that Greece’s asylum system has been underfunded and understaffed means that the asylum process is slow. 25% of cases take over a year to process instead of the mandatory 6 months, and this share has probably increased by now. Click on the picture to learn more.

So the pool of unreviewed, or ‘pending’, cases keeps on growing. When you look in the database, you see a strikingly steady increase, with almost 5,000 extra people per month (click and have a quick look for yourself!). Numbers are currently at 112,000 (Feb 2020). All of these people need to be housed, fed, etc. UNHCR recognises: “With steady new arrivals reaching the sea and land borders and limited legal pathways out of the country, there is an ever-increasing need for more reception places for asylum-seekers and refugees.” The camps become ever fuller, to the extent that many migrants are left on the streets.

Nadia shows me around her place, her daughter hopping around her. Sitting down on the bunkbeds with steaming tea in our hands and an Arab soap opera running in the background, they tell me about the camps they’ve lived in. Then the clock strikes 2.30pm and the next bus might be leaving soon.
            Guess who is already waiting at the bus stop. Helmooth laughs as he sees me. And it’s a good thing I meet him there. He can tell me that you can’t rely on the busses here. They never come when they are supposed to and he has plenty of experiences with busses that just drive past when they see asylum seekers standing by the stop. We’re patient for a good 15 minutes, but when a car emerges from the camp, we quickly wave it down to hitch a ride into the next village. 

Over the next few days in Thessaloniki I try to figure out where the migrants who are left out on the streets live. A barista points me to a soup kitchen that many documented and undocumented migrants visit. The soup kitchen is located in a run-down victorian apartment. When I climb up the dark stairs and stick my head round the poster-covered door, I am put to work before I even get a chance to introduce myself. They’re used to new faces. Across from me stands Rasheed, a half-peeled potato in his hand. I help him out and as we work, the young Moroccan, calm, with springy hair and a rough beard, loosens up little by little.  

A couple of days after visiting Volvi, Helmooth and I end up in Djavata camp. Before long, Helmooth finds some old friends  

Customers start arriving at the food centre, the brown building to the right

“Can’t we go back in?” I take an anonymised picture of the two undocumented travellers

Free food assistance for migrants, packed into aluminium boxes

Camps © Fortress Europe

As we finish peeling the potatoes for the next day, the food for this serving is driven to an abandoned warehouse just outside of town. People have created a community space there for homeless migrants. Hundreds of people, mostly young men, show up on a daily basis and enjoy the comfort of a living room, company, food, and music. “Why mostly young men?” I ask the manager. She explains: “Money to help vulnerable women, children and families is easy to come by. But funding shelters for young men is a lot less attractive to donors. And so these men you see here, they rely on the kitchen.”
                Rasheed shares their story. He lived on the streets here in Thessaloniki for a long time and only recently found an apartment. We walk to the community centre together. As we pass through the outskirts of town, he points out some places he used to live in. “That’s a homeless shelter, that’s really good in winter.” he mentions, as we pass a neglected bakery.
           “But sometimes it was full. Then we would usually sneak in there,” And he points up the road, towards the old train station. Its walls are high and the entrance guarded. These days, it only stores carriages, most of which are decades old, but the terrain is considered military property and has to be secured. “There’s an entrance at the back, a part of the wall is torn down, and at night, when no one’s looking, you can enter and sleep in the wagons.”

Once we arrive, I’m positioned by the main entrance upstairs, operating the hand sanitiser (because of Covid). Men walk up and down the stairs carrying their aluminium food containers. The elevator is activated for a bald guy in his forties who once lost a leg, and he pushes through the doors on crutches. He, too, lives in homeless shelters or outside.
             Next to the elevator, two Algerian guys hang around and watch. 
“Can we go back in?” They ask eventually. Out of curiosity I ask them why.  They explain they are looking for a backpack, and that maybe the manager knows who they should ask. They are about to set out on a multi-week hike to the west of Europe through the Balkans. Someone has given them some blankets to protect them in the still chilly nights. Now they need something to carry the blankets in. I learn that many of the men who visit this place are about to walk on to the West.


Inside one of the train carriages

Camps © Fortress Europe

The next day I am sitting by the ocean. Waves crash into the rocks below me. I watch water trickle down the narrow staircase that leads to the sea. “Ronja!” I look up. “Hey!” I call in surprise. I recognise the face. It’s Helmooth. I get up and greet him. “What are you doing here?” He sets down the plastic bag he’s carrying as a sign that he intends to sit down with me. “Not much. I just came back from the Red Cross.” He points at the bags. “It’s the papers I told you about.” They’re the freshly renewed ama and anka, work permits that allowed him to finally find a job when he got his refugee status. He does construction work on cargo ships. 
         “What about you? What are you up to?” He asks me. We sit down on the warm stones and I pack the book I was reading into my bag. “I was actually about to leave. I went to see the IOM building this morning, but they’re closed because of the virus. I wanted to check out this police station in the western part of town. You want to join?” The visit to the IOM was an attempt to find out more about Volvi camp. The police station is where I hope to find Thessaloniki’s deportation centre. Helmooth joins and on our way to the deportation centre, we’ll pass the old train station Rasheed from the soup kitchen pointed out. 

We follow the same stone wall I had walked past with Rasheed and find the main entrance. I look at Helmooth. “Should we give the regular entrance a try first?” He nods. We’re greeted by two guards standing in the doorway of the security building. Unfortunately, since it’s officially considered military terrain, there is no way the guards are letting us see the carriages without security clearance. “Come, I know another way in.” I beckon Helmooth.  
         The back entrance is at the opening for the former traintracks, now covered in weeds. We make it in, but we never find the carriages Rasheed used to sleep in. I pull myself up into the first open carriage,and find it completely stripped of its floors. That’s not a place to sleep in. Then, when we move on, another security officer approaches. He steps out of his car, fiercely speaking into a walkie-talkie. He rushes us off the premises,  shouting. We get out as fast as we can. 
            I try to imagine how Rasheed tried to sleep here, knowing that search-lights could shine through the glass at any moment. Let alone some of his friends, who weren’t even in Greece legally. It doesn’t seem like a pleasant place to get some rest.

Laughing about the chase, Helmooth and I walk on. The sun is high up in the sky now and it’s getting hot. The walk to the police department takes at least half an hour. It’s all the more disappointing when it turns out that it’s not the deportation centre after all. But thanks to Helmooth, the effort isn’t entirely for nothing. He mentions that much further up on this road there is yet another refugee camp where he lived before he found an apartment. “Do you want to go see it?” He offers. 

The locomotive of that carriage

Approaching Djavata Camp

A narrow path runs next to the highway, while trucks rush by

Camps © Fortress Europe

That’s how we end up in the last camp I visit in Greece: Djavata camp. It’s the camp that didn’t have space for the boys from the soup kitchen and the camp where Arif stayed for those few happy days. The bus takes us from across the police station through an industrial area and on to the outskirts of town. From there we have to walk. A little dirt path runs along the highway and we follow some residents that got out of the bus with us. Some carry big bags between them, holding a months’ supply of crisps or a pack full of juice cartons. They make a quick stop to switch sides over the course of the 15-minute walk. 
           As we walk, chatting, we pass several empty buildings, ramshackle and overgrown. Helmooth stops at one in particular. Knowing I’m interested in hideouts, he tells me that it was usually occupied by refugees in the winter. That’s when the temperatures drop so far that sleeping in the thin tents becomes unbearable. 

Djavata used to be nearly empty a couple of years ago. Yousif, too, stayed here when he just arrived in Greece. It took a long time before he could secure a Skype appointment, so he didn’t have the right to stay anywhere yet. Fortunately, with the help from an acquaintance, he found an unoccupied container. Squatting it, he lived in relative comfort until his asylum ID, the Ausweis, came through. 
           When Helmooth and I walk in, the situation is very different, and there is no way Yousif would have found an unoccupied container now. The centre of the camp is taken up by big white trailer homes showing signs of life, with toys scattered around everywhere. Along the edges of this centre part, we pass  UNHCR tents. Countless regular camping tents occupy the grass lining the fences. The camp is clearly full beyond capacity.

Some guys are lying in front of their tents, enjoying the sun, seemingly lacking anything better to do. They look at us curiously and we greet them. Helmooth offers to translate some questions he figures I have. So is it true that there are no more places here? I want to know. One of the guys, lying on a red towel, supporting himself on his elbows, answers. According to him, the camp isn’t technically full. If you have 15 euros you can pick up one of these tents and join the crowd. 

A soccer match takes place in the evening sun at Djavata camp. Camping tents take up much of the unoccupied space

Camps © Fortress Europe

“So why do so many people live on the streets in Thessaloniki, when they have the right to live here?” I want to know. Some discussion starts between the guys and Helmooth translates for me. They speculate that the boys in the streets preferred living in town to this life. And they understand that. It is a great hassle for them to reach Thessaloniki. 

The group heads into town almost daily. They receive some money from the organisations in the camp and split it between them. However, because it’s not usually enough to cover their food costs in the camp, they go to the same food kitchen I visited. Paying for the busticket is cheaper than buying food. Only travelling to town, picking up the food and returning to the camp already takes half a day. It’s not a stretch to think it’s convenient to stay in town, instead of making this daily trip. Especially considering that the conditions in the camp aren’t particularly welcoming.

We thank them, and walk on. Helmooth continues straight on to the UNHCR tents. He greets a family and within minutes he is cradling a baby in his arms. “They’ve lived here a couple of months now, and because of the baby they would really like to live in one of the containers.” He explains. He has known the family for a while. They are Syrian too, friends of friends. He once offered them a room in his apartment, but they’re too proud to take him up on his offer. The camp authorities aren’t very accommodating though. Time after time, the family sees containers open up as families leave and new families move in. Apparently they and the baby are never at the top of the list. There is just too great a demand for living space these days.
           We spend some time in front of their tents, chatting, and the afternoon turns into evening. I’m meeting Arif and his friend later that evening and want to go back to town. I look at Helmooth and he nods. But before we leave he gives me one more treat: Some beans and bread from a restaurant hidden in one of the containers. I have a good laugh as he knocks on a seemingly random trailer-door and produces a steaming bowl of lentils. “You just have to know where to look.” he winks.
               As I have been many times before, I am impressed by the structures that are hidden from sight in these camps. You really have to be an insider to understand life here. Because obviously, despite the shortages, people still work to make a life for themselves.

Nothing about this trailer revealed that it was in fact a makeshift restaurant serving lubia: Middle Eastern beans. The bunk bed served as a table.

The building helmooth points out on the way. because you can make a fire inside, it’s a good place to hide from the cold.