By Amanda Blanco
Section E2 of the industrial Port of Piraeus was never meant to be called home. But since closure of Greece’s borders, that is exactly what it has become for roughly 1,000 refugees. Their tents cluster under a highway overpass, squeezing together to escape the blistering sun.
“The image speaks for itself,” says Negia Milian, a volunteer camp director from a Piraeus-based group supporting the refugees. Milian, a former Cuban refugee, emphasizes that her group is not a so-called Non-Governmental Organization, or NGO. However, there are several NGOs working at Piraeus, including the Red Cross and Save the Children.
Before the crisis, Milian’s group did not focus specifically on helping refugees. Its main goal was to assist the less fortunate members of the local Athens community. But in the past year, as the refugee population in Greece increased dramatically, it decided to direct most of its efforts toward the refugee camp at the port. Last March, there were more than 3,000 refugees living on the docks. Row after row of brightly colored tents covered the asphalt, lending a deceptively festive appearance to the community from far away.
To a first-time visitor, perhaps the most striking quality of Piraeus is the number of children running, screaming, and laughing on the expansive concrete. On the side of an outdated white structure designated “Passenger Waiting,” there is a picture every parent has hung on their refrigerator: scribbles of green grass, a square topped with a triangular roof, a stick figure-family, and smiley-faced yellow sun watching over it all. Nearby, a young boy races around the lot while pushing a toddler in a stroller. Another boldly challenges volunteers to a soccer match, while his friend hula-hoops in the shade. A girl with long, slightly tangled curls is dressed head to toe in pink. She skips over to the camp’s reception tent and holds out her right hand to borrow my pen, clutching what appears to be a white registration card tightly in her left palm. Miss Pink scribbles her name and a little flower doodle. After she returns my pen, her brow furrows. “Two pen?” she asks, pointing at the replacement I had just pulled out of my bag. She holds out her hand again, eyes on the prize. I give the shiny, blue one back to her, and she smiles contently, skipping off towards the tents, new trinket in hand.
“It’s just like any other society,” Milian says of the camp. And just like in most societies, people tend to stick with people like themselves. The refugees at Piraeus are divided into two groups, Syrians and Afghans. This may be partly due to socioeconomic status, as Milian explains that Afghan refugees are considered poorer and less educated than the Syrians. Some Syrians also believe ISIS agents are being trained in Afghanistan. However, the split is also the result of another tension. Generally, Milan explains, it is easier for Syrians to gain refugee status through the United Nations High Council for Refugees than it is for Afghans, even though Afghanistan has been at war for decades. Though the volunteers at Piraeus do not encourage the separation, they respect it as a natural occurrence. Milian bristles that Afghans are often considered migrants, not refugees. To her there is no distinction between the terms. “All refugees are leaving countries under turmoil,” she says. “They cannot go back home.”
The Greek government recently released a statement declaring that by July 20, 2016, all refugees are to leave Piraeus. However, Milian is not overly concerned. Such claims have been made before, with little follow-through. The refugees cannot go back, and they are not allowed to move forward. Until drastic changes are made, it seems that many will continue to call the Port of Piraeus home for a while longer.