Airport to nowhere: Thousands of migrants stranded in abandoned Athens terminal


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. IMAGE: SARAH LEDUC

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 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. And the global financial collapse of 2008 sent Greece into economic purgatory and ended hopes for the new metropolitan park.

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.

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.

The text is in Greek only. Before showing it to FRANCE 24, none of them had any idea what it said.

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 (ISIS) group. They left their village near Mosul in Iraq just before it was stormed by the jihadist group, heading first for Sinjar, where ISIS 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 supervising the camp.

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 centers, 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.

Continue reading here (Original posted in France24)