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Athens' airport to nowhere: Migrants stranded in Greek limbo

Sarah Leduc, FRANCE 24

For decades, Ellinikon International Airport has connected Athens to wealthier EU capitals. Now the abandoned structure has been taken over by thousands of migrants desperate to make their way further north into Europe.


in Athens

It's been 15 years since the last plane took off from the Greek capital's former international airport, which stretches along the Aegean Sea and lies a short drive south of the city centre. If things had gone according to plan, Ellinikon (also known as Hellinikon) might have become Athens' equivalent of Tempelhof Airport in Berlin: a sprawling and much-loved communal area where families, cyclists, skaters and kite-flyers whiz along the disused runways and revel in unkempt meadows that stretch out to the horizon.

But in crisis-hit Greece, nothing has gone according to plan. Part of the airport site was hastily redeveloped just in time to host the baseball, hockey, kayak and fencing events of the 2004 Olympics. The following year architects were invited to submit plans for a new metropolitan park, trumpeted as Europe's largest. But the work was due to start in 2008, the year financial markets collapsed and Greece began its descent into economic purgatory.

As one ill-fated EU bailout followed another, Greece was told to sell its “crown jewels” – including Ellinikon and the nearby port of Piraeus, Europe's largest passenger terminal. Qatar snapped up a first chunk of the airport, despite the pleas of local residents to go ahead with the park. Then came the migrants. They now number 4,359, crammed into abandoned departure lounges and former Olympic facilities in harrowing conditions.

'Join us or go away'

The migrants at Ellinikon and at the port of Piraeus – where some 6,000 huddle in tents with no roof above them – have been stuck in limbo since countries to the north closed their borders earlier this month. More than 51,000 are now trapped in Greece, a cash-strapped country they never envisaged as their final destination when they set off from home fleeing poverty, war and persecution.

A migrant child peeps through the entrance to a tent in the main hall of the Ellinikon Airport, which has been closed since 2001.
A migrant child peeps through the entrance to a tent in the main hall of the Ellinikon Airport, which has been closed since 2001.

Hassan Haji, a 36-year-old nurse from northern Iraq, has been staying at Ellinikon for a month with his wife Ines and their four children, aged one to 10. Like many others, they were hoping to move on to Germany where they have friends and family. Now they sit in the airport's overcrowded departure lounge, waiting to hear if and when the borders will reopen.

In the meantime, Haji has teamed up with relatives to form a tiny camp within the camp, with half a dozen tents grouped together around a miniscule communal area offering just enough space to sit down for a chat on sleeping mats and grey UN blankets. He describes his journey to Greece with a mix of gestures and broken English, helped by his cousin Malalla al-Khany.

Haji and his travel companions are Yazidis, an ethnic and religious minority whose members have been kidnapped, raped and murdered by the Islamic State (IS) group. They left their village near Mosul in Iraq just before it was stormed by the jihadist group, heading first for Sinjar, where IS militants had been driven out by Kurdish fighters.

“The [Kurdish] peshmerga said, 'Join our forces or go away,' so we drove on to the Turkish border,” says al-Khany, 21, who trained as a translator at Mosul University. They went on to Istanbul and the smuggling hub of Izmir, where they sold their car to pay for the crossing to Greece. They were charged $2,000 per adult and half that amount for the children. Haji had to pay $8,000 for his family alone.

The Iraqi migrants had been promised a “big and modern” boat but were hauled onto a rickety raft and held at gunpoint. Fortunately all of them survived the four-hour crossing to the Greek island of Chios, a short but treacherous route that has claimed hundreds of lives since the start of the migrant crisis.

After registering with Greek authorities, Haji and his relatives were each given a piece of paper stating that they can stay in Greece for six months, after which they will be deported. The text is in Greek only. Before showing it to FRANCE 24, none of them had any idea what it said.

Detention centre

Unlike the countless other squats and NGO-run shelters that have sprung up across Greece since the start of the crisis, Ellenikon is, in theory, an “official” camp. But it is hard to find any signs of officialdom. Other than an unmarked police car parked discreetly outside the structure and dozens of Greek volunteers serving food to a long queue of migrants, there is no evidence of anyone running or surveilling the camp.

Hassan Haji (left) and Mallala al-Khany, two Yazidis from the Mosul region of northern Iraq, have been living at the camp at Ellinikon Airport since the end of February.
Hassan Haji (left) and Mallala al-Khany, two Yazidis from the Mosul region of northern Iraq, have been living at the camp at Ellinikon Airport since the end of February.

The abandoned airport is the legacy of a now-defunct phase of the refugee crisis, when Germany opened its borders to hundreds of thousands and Greece simply waved them through, well aware that none of them planned to apply for asylum in the EU's weakest economy.

Ideological factors have also guided Greece's actions. When it came to power in January 2015, the left-wing Syriza party moved to close the grimmest migrant detention centres, describing them as inhumane. It ordered police not to use force to remove people camping in ports and at border posts. The contrast with Balkan countries north of Greece, where riot police have frequently clashed with migrants, is glaring.

In places like Ellenikon, migrants are free to walk in and out of the camp and wander into town. Those who can afford to buy food go to nearby stores, “because the food at the camp is bad and the bread is like stone”, says al-Khany.

But the Ellenikon camp was never meant to last, or to house this many people. The situation here and in other parts of the Athens region has deteriorated rapidly as the result of a March agreement between the EU and Turkey, aimed at halting an influx of more than a million "irregular migrants" through Greece since January last year.

Under the deal, migrants arriving on the Greek islands are now individually assessed by the Greek authorities, backed by EU staff. Anyone who does not apply for asylum will be sent back starting April 4, as will anyone whose claim is rejected. For every Syrian migrant sent back to Turkey, one Syrian already in Turkey will be resettled in the EU.

Implementation of the deal has presented Greece with a massive logistical challenge. This involved emptying Greek islands of all those who had crossed over from Turkey prior to the deal in order to make way for the newcomers and organise expulsions.

As a result, the numbers of refugees have swollen in Athens and elsewhere on the mainland. Their fate is not addressed by the deal with Turkish authorities, which rights groups have slammed as a gross violation of refugee conventions. They say the agreement has effectively turned Greece into a detention centre.

The Greek government has promised to speed up the creation of new reception centres for up to 30,000 migrants trapped in the country. It has bitterly complained that emergency funds promised by the EU to help cope with the crisis are yet to arrive.

Local officials are also under pressure to find shelter for refugee families. On Wednesday, the municipality of Athens announced a scheme to house 1,200 vulnerable asylum seekers in houses and hotels by the summer. In Thessaloniki, Greece's second-largest city, the mayor has vowed to find accommodation for 1,400.

'We can't go back'

In the meantime, more and more tents have sprung up at Ellinikon, covering every square foot of the former terminal and spreading outside into the open air. Families hang up bits of cloth for a little privacy. Men while away the time as best they can while swarms of children run amok and women stay mostly inside their tents. The air is thick with the smell of unwashed bodies and clothes.

“Everywhere is dirty. There is only one doctor and four cold showers for all of us,” says al-Khany. “They just feed us, like animals, and then nothing else.”

Safety is another issue. There are just 27 Yazidis in the terminal, huddled together in two clusters. They are surrounded by Afghans, who make up the majority of the camp's population. In one sign of tension between the communities, Yazidis accuse Afghans of stealing their belongings, while Afghans make the same claim of Iranians.

Despite the dire conditions, there is no going back for Haji and al-Khany. “We can't return to Iraq,” says the latter. “We have no house, we sold our car; we have nothing. If there is no other option, we will apply to live in Greece.”

A mother and child next to drying washing at the entrance to the former airport.
A mother and child next to drying washing at the entrance to the former airport.

Others may not even have that option. As European countries scramble to stem the northward flow from Greece, Afghans and Pakistanis have slipped down the refugee social ladder. Most are considered economic migrants, regardless of their personal stories.

The Afghans at Ellinikon tend to be ethnic Hazaras, recognisable by their distinctive features, a legacy of their East Asian ancestry. Like Iraq's Yazidis, Hazaras have long been oppressed by other groups that make up the patchwork of ethnicities in Aghanistan. They are mainly Shiite Muslims in a Sunni-majority country, and frequent targets of the Taliban.

Pervaiz Abdullahi, 19, hails from a village near Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan. He worked as an IT engineer for an American company until conditions became too dangerous. At Ellinikon, his language skills have turned him into a mediator between different groups.

“I left because the Taliban always attack and kill. They killed my two elder brothers,” he says. “The Taliban told me: ‘Join us and help us kill Americans’. They offered me money. But I fled.”

Abdullahi arrived in Athens in late February after travelling through Iran, Turkey and the Greek island of Lesbos. Just as he prepared to head north he was told that Macedonian authorities had reclassified all Afghans as economic migrants and would stop them at the border.

“Germany, UK, France – I am ready to go anywhere,” he says in fluent English, refusing to believe that the borders are likely to remain shut for the foreseeable future. “Can you tell France to send a plane? For two thousand people? Five thousand people? We will come.”

Barring an unexpected change of policy, there will be no such plane arriving in Athens for Abdullahi. As he speaks, a sign above him reads “Domestic flights” – a dispiriting reminder that, for the time being, his future lies in Greece.

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