The pretty port town of Patras is getting ready for carnival time. Multicoloured ribbons are being draped from lampshades. Posters advertising the festival’s events are being stuck to every bare section of wall and giant statues of clowns are being erected.
As small children play at their feet, their parents browse the jewellery stalls. Couples canoodle on the corner and a group of young girls gossip in a café over a frozen yoghurt..
To the casual observer there is no crisis here, just a group of Greeks keen to swap the daily hum drum and hardships of life for a weekend of escapism.
But not everybody has come to patras to stay. Away from the music, chit chatter and colour are a group whose main priority it is to leave. Their focus is not on taking a stroll with an icecream through the centre’s cobbled streets. Their gaze is fixed on the ferries docked in the distance. The ferries headed for Brindisi, Italy and beyond.
The illegal migrants of Patras have come here with the purpose of leaving via the gateway to the west and beyond. Syrians, Afghans, Algerians, Pakistanis..Their final destinations are scrawled in fluorescent paint on the walls where they sleep, above dirty rose patterned duvets – crumpled on deflated mattresses.
Brazil… Paris… Grand Britannia… in neon pink
It is amazing to me that any of them can still sleep in the draughty, dilapidated factory of Patraiki-Peraiki. Last May, when it was home to more than 500 migrants, it was violently attacked by far right extremists. But still, some believe its better to hide out here than be seen on the streets. To be targeted by Golden Dawn or detained by police and taken to a detention centre.
One man recalls his time in the Corinth camp about an hour and a half away. He tells us how officers messed with their minds, banned hot water and failed to feed them properly or keep them warm. “When we decided to protest” he says, “they used tear gas and forced us to break up our strike”.
“Where are you headed?” We ask the Syrians and Algerians eager to speak to us. “Anywhere…” they answer. “Anywhere that respects human rights, because this country sure doesn’t.”
Two years after Greece was charged with violating the European Convention on Human Rights, in a case involving a migrant, it is unclear whether anything has changed. No journalists have ever been allowed to enter the Corinth camp to judge for themselves whether the conditions have improved.
‘A serious failure’ is what one NGO calls it, ‘to provide even the most basic requirements of safety and shelter to asylum seekers’.
At the moment the police still control asylum in Greece. In Athens applications from just 20 migrants are accepted for consideration every week. The unlucky ones are left to roam the streets at risk of being picked up without the papers they so desperately want, but which are so desperately difficult to get hold of.
A specialist police operation is always on the look out for non-Greek looking suspects. The Greek council for refugees calls it a vicious circle of violence and deprivation of rights.
A new government agency has been set up to replace the current system, but it has yet to process a single case. The director of the service assures us it will be launched in the next few months and it is time for things to change.
In the meantime, human rights campaigners work tirelessly to educate others about immigration and to counteract the hate. But leaflets suggesting “migrants are not THE problem, they are people WITH problems” can only do so much..
On Friday night as the sun sets, the streets of Patras begin to fill up again with Greeks keen to enjoy some quality time with their families and forget about politics and financial worries as best they can for one weekend.
A mile outside the centre the Syrians and Algerians are doing their best to stay warm..counting down the days until their ships leave for better things.
Meanwhile, in Athens migrants are counting down the hours until they can apply for asylum.
Hundreds are wrapped in blankets, queueing in an alley off Petrou Ralli street. They clutch their forms tightly, but most know they stand a very slim chance of being successful.
Some have been sat against the wall since Wednesday, in their own excrement… praying every second that soon they will be able to walk the streets, as free men.
Some are certainly economic migrants, but some are refugees from conflict – from Somalia, Syria and Iraq. Their families are perhaps dead. They’ve escaped a life of fear, warfare, sadness and torture..
And yet despite their determination to leave all that behind, the graffiti on the wall in front of them, illuminated by stifling yellow street light, depressingly reads: O Polemos einai Edo.. The War is Here..