Greece refugees

Even an Economic Crisis Cannot Unnerve Greece’s Spirit to Aid the Refugee Crisis

Ray Barron-Woolford is a writer and CEO of the Kath Duncan Equality & Civil Rights Network. Following his previous ImmiNews piece on the Angels of Greece, Ray reports on the socio-economic climate in Greece that has been burdened by a tragic refugee crisis. He is also fundraising to establish a safe zone for migrants in the region which you can donate to here.

Never arrive at Athens after midnight, whatever the guide books may say, as a taxi is probably the most expensive part of any trip. And at double the rate after midnight, around £60, that cheap flight from Stansted Airport does not appear to be the bargain it initially seemed. Taxi rates here are per person, too.

Athens gets a rough press. The appalling tragedy of the refugee and migrant crisis has decimated Greece’s tourism sector with tourism currently down by 80% across its beautiful islands. Athens itself is still suffering under austerity as part of its salvaged EU deal and is hit by a double whammy.

Yet, this city is nothing like I was expecting – and so much better for it. The roads are clean and the doorways of its high streets, unlike London, are not populated with rough sleepers that stain and shame London and many other cities in Europe.

Until we – the British public – as voters demand a different mindset, the only people who benefit from this misery are the people traffickers.

Greece offers exceptional value; a coffee is £1.50, a meal less than a fiver. Hotel family rooms can be secured from £20 with breakfast. Although many may come for the history, Athens street art is what takes your breath away; the scale, the quality, the simplicity. They may not have our Banksy, but they have something very different and a real asset to those who come to see this wonderful city.

Greece refugees
The kind-hearted spirit of Greece is encapsulated in its free and mobile laundrette service which helps the island’s refugee and asylum-seeking population. [Photo by Ray Barron-Woolford].

Athens stands proudly: it is not deteriorated or stuffed with soup kitchens and tent cities on its street corners. Victoria Square is what is described as the ‘run -down’ part of town in which the refugees remain, sometimes for years, awaiting the paperwork that will set them off on their dream of a better life.

As I sit in the beautiful Victoria Park, smartly dressed men and women sit waiting, day after day. They wait for news, friends or family so they can move onto the next stage, be it on foot, with or without papers, or in the back of a people traffickers’ lorry to Italy with UK or Germany in their sights.

These people have valuable skills to offer, yet ‘Fortress Europe’ barricades them out. The UK is quite literally putting up walls to cut off an economic resource to its NHS and farmers. Our public sector is in the midst of a crisis while those eager to help are trapped in Greece.

Until we – the British public – as voters demand a different mindset, the only people who benefit from this misery are the people traffickers. These people will find a way, however long it takes. Is it therefore not better to welcome people with skills? Does it not make our lives better and the world safer?

The UK is quite literally putting up walls to cut off an economic resource to its NHS and farmers. Our public sector is in the midst of a crisis while those eager to help are trapped in Greece.

At the entrance to Victoria Park is a small van, clearly marked in English. Whatever country people travel to and from, the international language is English; something that should make us proud. The van is connected to the park’s water and power system and tours different parts of the city, offering a free launderette service.

In another part of the city, I sit and talk with those who run a needle- exchange van that has done wonders to transform the HIV rates and the discarded needle problems. It’s controversial, as it is in the UK, but the Mayor funds this project and slowly it has transformed troubled areas. Yes, in an ideal world, drugs would not be distributed and would not be something we tolerate, but we do not live in an ideal world.

Refugees in Greece
A mobile laundrette service drives around the city. [Photograph by Ray Barron-Woolford].

Greece may be the Cinderella of the EU, but it still has its heart and its values. Its political climate and structure may appear extreme to those from the outside looking in, but as one political commentator told me – echoing a view held widely on the street – ‘Greek politics is like football: they all play the same game, they just wear a different colour shirt.’

Despite its tumultuous and financial difficulties, Greece has battled against the odds and, remarkably, pulled through. The wages may be low – it’s not uncommon to find workers earning just 1 euro an hour – but the city feels up-and-coming. It’s vibrant, it’s cool and it offers diversity that attracts people from across every corner of the globe to come. However, its refugee crisis has, as with many other places, led to wide-spread scams.

This is a call to action to welcome Greece back into your heart.

As part of my visit, I tracked down social media groups who had been showing films as a way to raise cash. I should not be surprised that all the organisations who were running Paypal accounts in their own name either vanished the day I arrived, spent days delaying my visit to them or failed to show up entirely.

Lighthouse relief in Greece
The Lighthouse Relief team are well-equipped in helping newly arrived refugees. [Photo by Ray Barron-Woolford.]

Although camp situations are dire and are in certain need of reparation, the EEA needs to extend a helping hand to Greece. The state currently pays rent for all its refugee residents. Asylum-seekers don’t need to live on the streets and every child is granted access to schools once on the Greek mainland. However, this admirable initiative has opened the gates to scammers who aren’t genuinely persecuted who set up fake organisations and websites to seek donations to fund schools and refugee accommodation.

Greece is a ‘must visit’ between November to March – not least of all because the main Greek temples and museums are open for just 4 euros, but food prices are low and the value to the pound makes the exchange rate the most attractive compared to any other trip to another European country.

Everyone is welcome here in Greece, it’s just the rest of the world that needs to give Greece a chance and a helping hand.

The streets are alive with cafe culture, vibrant street art and flea markets that cower over any other EU city. Gazi student area offers nightlife that allows you to capture the essence of Greece. It may be poor, but it is proud and beautiful on every level.

This is a call to action to welcome Greece back into your heart. It’s inflammatory and ‘scary’ headlines couldn’t be farther from the truth. Everyone is welcome here in Greece, it’s just the rest of the world that needs to give Greece a chance and a helping hand.

Vulnerable and persecuted individuals are just as much our humanitarian and moral responsibility as Greece, so why are we steering clear?

Written by
Ray Barron-Woolford
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