Refugees Detained in Thessonaliki’s Diavata Camp Await Asylum

1 November, 2021
The Al-Has­san fam­i­ly in front of their car­a­van. They bake bread in an old bar­rel placed under the watch­tow­er (all pho­tos cour­tesy of Iason Athanasiadis).

In which our colum­nist flies up to Thes­sa­loni­ki and vis­its the Dia­va­ta camp for refugees seek­ing Euro­pean asy­lum — no one is ille­gal, every­one mer­its a bet­ter life.

 

Iason Athanasiadis

 

At the secu­ri­ty screen­ing of Athens’ Inter­na­tion­al Airport’s Depar­tures, police have pulled aside a group of migrants seek­ing to board a flight. The het­ero­ge­neous group of anx­ious, thwart­ed Arab, Iran­ian and African men, women and chil­dren stand out by a mile, espe­cial­ly when shoul­der-to-shoul­der with gloss­i­ly con­fi­dent white tourists, bask­ing in the after­glow of a relax­ing hol­i­day. Even the non-white EU res­i­dents pop­u­lat­ing the queue have a First World sheen pro­found­ly absent from the rag­tag group. 

Among the migrants is an African woman. Clear­ly a reg­u­lar at the air­port, she yanks off an unlike­ly-look­ing wig while shout­ing at a police­man “It’s me, it’s me, yes it’s me!” Smil­ing, the offi­cer offers her his arm in a par­o­dy of gal­lantry, to lead her towards the head-high met­al enclo­sure into which the oth­ers have already been corralled. 

Unscript­ed­ly, a Ralph Lau­ren-wear­ing, flush-faced Amer­i­can and his wife and son com­pla­cent­ly fol­low the migrant crowd straight into the pen. Catch­ing sight of the impend­ing social awk­ward­ness, an Ara­bic-accent­ed man yells, “No, no, no, no!”, anx­ious to save these respectable peo­ple from veer­ing off into some decid­ed­ly non-First World prob­lems. The Amer­i­cans return to the right queue, order is restored, and Athens returns to its tra­di­tion­al bal­anc­ing role between East and West, rich and poor, insid­er and out­sider: tourists, dig­i­tal nomads and Gold­en Visa investors get to vis­it the Greece of their dreams, but for migrants and refugees the stay can get night­mar­ish­ly overextended.

The rein­forced out­side of the Dia­va­ta Camp, com­plet­ed in the sum­mer of 2021.


On the road to nowhere

I am head­ed to the north­ern port city of Thes­sa­loni­ki to pro­duce a doc­u­men­tary about the state of migra­tion in Europe and the Mid­dle East, after the Taliban’s sum­mer recon­quest of Kab­ul closed a twen­ty-year Amer­i­can paren­the­sis in Afghanistan. The expect­ed migra­tion flows have yet to pick up, but once they do, Thes­sa­loni­ki — whose once-cos­mopoli­tan port used to be the ter­mi­nus for all Balkan trade in the first flush of late Ottoman indus­tri­al­iza­tion — will be a tran­sit area, cov­er­ing that part of the migra­tion route from the Turk­ish bor­der to the Balka­ns. With win­ter clos­ing in and Covid-relat­ed restric­tions in force, flows of non-VIP refugees have still to man­i­fest, although images from the Afghanistan-Pak­istan bor­der show thou­sands clus­tered there.

In the first half of the last cen­tu­ry, Thes­sa­loni­ki lost both its com­mer­cial hin­ter­land to the Iron Cur­tain and its vast Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty to Nazism, plung­ing it into an iso­lat­ing eth­nic homog­e­niza­tion from which it is only just emerg­ing. The tens of thou­sands of Pon­tian-ori­gin Greeks who flocked to it after the col­lapse of the Sovi­et Union, turned it into a nation­al­ist bas­tion, while a cos­mopoli­tan-mind­ed for­mer may­or and upgrades to infra­struc­ture result­ed in grow­ing tourism num­bers and real-estate invest­ment, much of it Israeli. The inter­est from Israel isn’t by chance: Thessaloniki’s one­time Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty made it known as the Jerusalem of the Balkans.

Covid, and low rates of vac­ci­na­tion, hit Thes­sa­loni­ki par­tic­u­lar­ly hard. A new wave is sweep­ing through dur­ing my vis­it, but cel­e­bra­to­ry litur­gies in hon­or of the city’s patron saint on the anniver­sary of Thessaloniki’s con­quest by the Greek army in 1912 and a mil­i­tary parade remain uncancelled.

But a few kilo­me­ters from the center’s heav­ing Byzan­tine church­es, fran­tic nightlife and real-estate invest­ments, lies anoth­er world. Dia­va­ta is a camp for asy­lum-seek­ers housed in a for­mer mil­i­tary base lost amid char­ac­ter­less provin­cial roads, junk­yards and two-storey apart­ment blocks. Near­by are a major prison, an indus­tri­al zone, and a Roma settlement.

Camp chil­dren play in Casa Basa, an NGO that dis­trib­utes food and med­i­cine just along­side the Dia­va­ta Camp.

Its pop­u­la­tion is cur­rent­ly at an all-time low of 700 indi­vid­u­als (from a height of 1,600), fol­low­ing the cur­rent government’s accel­er­a­tion of the asy­lum process and sev­er­ing of finan­cial aid, and the right to free food to all those whose process con­cludes. A turgid futil­i­ty floats over a for­mer­ly chaot­ic and often vio­lent camp. Its cur­rent direc­tor, a motor­cy­cle-rid­ing police­man, tamed it through a mix of con­sul­ta­tions, threats, inter­me­di­a­tion using com­mu­ni­ty elders, and expulsions.

Named after the Greek word for “cross­ing,” Dia­va­ta con­cen­trates with­in its three-meter-high cement-and-steel walls the dis­si­dents and run­aways of a dys­func­tion­al region. I meet an Afghan hus­band-and-wife cou­ple who worked in the police force since the era of the USSR’s Com­mu­nist proxy gov­ern­ment. They first escaped the Tal­iban in 1996 to spend four years in Iran, before flee­ing them again, this time for good. Now they spend their days search­ing for news of their col­leagues who remained behind.

There’s an Alger­ian dancer sport­ing a cross ear­ring who con­vert­ed to Chris­tian­i­ty and claims Salafi extrem­ists kid­napped and abused her before she fled to Turkey. There, she mar­ried a Moroc­can (a for­mer vagrant from Fes) whom she met in a for­est after they’d both been pushed back from Greece. In Dia­va­ta, the camp res­i­dents refer to them as “the Chris­tians”; she and her hus­band along with their months-old daugh­ter were the vic­tims of a mini-pogrom, they claim.

Then there is Sima, a sin­gle Haz­ara moth­er of two boys from east­ern Afghanistan’s Jaghori province. Tak­en by a local man as his sec­ond wife, she had to fend off a coor­di­nat­ed cam­paign by the first wife and her moth­er-in-law. They even­tu­al­ly suc­ceed­ed in eject­ing her from the house. “My father refused to accept me back, as a bride’s return to her house is shame­ful in our cul­ture,” she told me.

Sima looks out from her car­a­van win­dow on anoth­er day wait­ing for a reply.

Sima was forced to live for some months in derelict build­ings, preyed upon by men offer­ing her pro­tec­tion, until she could sell her bridal gold and get a pass­port allow­ing her and her two boys to cross, first into Iran, then Turkey, then across the Aegean Sea till they end­ed up in Les­bos island’s noto­ri­ous Mória Camp. They moved to Dia­va­ta a month before Moria burned down in Sep­tem­ber 2020, miss­ing the oppor­tu­ni­ty to be one of the 1,000 refugees accept­ed by Ger­many. Now, they spend end­less days between the camp’s play­ground, its laun­dry facil­i­ty and their car­a­van, wait­ing for an offi­cial res­o­lu­tion to their claim.

Anoth­er fam­i­ly I met who fled due to the tox­ic mix of cul­tur­al mores and con­flict were the Al-Has­sans from Syria’s Deir Ezzor. Khaled Al-Hassan’s fam­i­ly mem­bers were forced to leave their town after an Islam­ic State fight­er came knock­ing for his nine-year-old daugh­ter, in whom he’d dis­cerned bride mate­r­i­al. After punch­ing him, Khaled imme­di­ate­ly fled with his fam­i­ly across the Euphrates to a suc­ces­sion of trou­bled towns. For years they lived under the threat of bom­bard­ment from the air, and car-bombs at street-level.

The reli­gious­ly con­ser­v­a­tive Al-Has­san had been a con­struc­tion and restau­rant entre­pre­neur in the nether-regions between Syr­ia and Iraq. In Dia­va­ta, he carved out a role as an elder for a dimin­ish­ing Ara­bic-speak­ing com­mu­ni­ty by rep­re­sent­ing its mem­bers in dis­putes with the bur­geon­ing Afghans. He baked and sold Ara­bic bread to the camp res­i­dents, sent his eldest son off to har­vest fruit and his daugh­ter to attend a near­by NGO, where vol­un­teers empow­ered her in a female-only space by coach­ing her in Eng­lish. Life moved on, even for those mired in an extend­ed pause.

A glit­ter­ing dead-end

Back in Thes­sa­loni­ki, the sea sparkles in the autum­nal sun­light but the city has long lost its cos­mopoli­tan glint as the exit point for Balkan trade and one of the Mediterranean’s busiest ports. The wounds of coex­is­tence are either vis­i­ble in the van­dal­ized Ortho­dox fres­coes inside church­es since Ottoman times, and ten­sions between nation­al­ists and left­ists, or remain elo­quent­ly out-of-sight in long-since top­pled minarets and demol­ished syn­a­gogues, the thou­sands of archi­tec­tur­al art­works replaced by mod­ern apart­ment blocks, and the Jew­ish ceme­tery buried under the Aris­to­tle Uni­ver­si­ty campus.

Inside its wood-pan­elled library is aca­d­e­m­ic Yior­gos Angelopou­los. The for­mer Syriza gov­ern­ment offi­cial worked hard for years to inte­grate refugee chil­dren into Greek schools, some­thing made hard­er both by Greece’s excep­tion­al­ist cre­ation-myth (which leaves lit­tle space for non-Chris­t­ian East­ern­ers), and the asy­lum-seek­ers’ dis­in­ter­est in stay­ing here (hav­ing sized up Greece, they often express their desire to “con­tin­ue onto Europe”).

“The gov­ern­ment is impos­ing obsta­cles in these children’s abil­i­ty to attend schools,” Angelopou­los said. “It’s a lose-lose sit­u­a­tion, because both we as a soci­ety are los­ing some­thing and so are these chil­dren who won’t be able to acquire the tools for integration.”

The day I left Thes­sa­loni­ki, thou­sands of res­i­dents were out on the streets cheer­ing a mil­i­tary parade com­mem­o­rat­ing Greece’s refusal to sur­ren­der to the Ital­ians at the start of the Sec­ond World War. Proud fathers held up their chil­dren as tanks trun­dled down the coastal road, while sophis­ti­cat­ed fight­er jets and heli­copters per­formed bar­rel-rolls and fly-bys. “We must pre­pare for war in order to con­tin­ue liv­ing in peace,” one young man said. Anoth­er nation­al­ist, Dim­itris Ziabazis, the founder of a group called Unit­ed Mace­do­nians and orga­niz­er of a con­tro­ver­sial 2019 BBQ fea­tur­ing pork kebabs and beers pre­pared out­side the Dia­va­ta camp (he claims it was a pub­lic­i­ty stunt intend­ed to focus atten­tion on the region­al mar­gin­al­iza­tion that he choos­es to blame on asy­lum-seek­ers), believed that a coun­try with a mil­i­tar­i­ly-assertive Turk­ish neigh­bor needs such parades to keep patri­o­tism acute.

On my return home, tak­ing off from Thes­sa­loni­ki, the air­plane rose above the Gulf of Saloni­ca and I caught a glimpse of Dia­va­ta sprawl­ing in the haze. Soar­ing past Mount Olym­pus after an intense week of sto­ries and encoun­ters, the height and dis­tance exert­ed a dimin­ish­ing effect on the con­cerns, hopes and fears packed down there. I was back in the accel­er­at­ed First World Greece which most of the peo­ple I had met would only ever encounter if the EU opened its gates to them. It was a reminder that dis­tance can func­tion dehu­man­iz­ing­ly, peo­ple who don’t suit our nar­ra­tive can be parked out of sight, and that only inter­ac­tion, by liv­ing along­side each oth­er in cities and the coun­try­side, can achieve integration.

 

AfghanistanasylumGreecePakistanrefugeesSyria

TMR contributing editor Iason Athanasiadis is a Mediterranean-focused multimedia journalist based between Athens, Istanbul, and Tunis. He uses all media to recount the story of how we can adapt to the era of climate change, mass migration, and the misapplication of distorted modernities. He studied Arabic and Modern Middle Eastern Studies at Oxford, Persian and Contemporary Iranian Studies in Tehran, and was a Nieman fellow at Harvard, before working for the United Nations between 2011 and 2018. He received the Anna Lindh Foundation’s Mediterranean Journalism Award for his coverage of the Arab Spring in 2011, and its 10th-anniversary alumni award for his commitment to using all media to tell stories of intercultural dialogue in 2017.

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