Thousands of refugees are escaping Iran and AfghanistanforGreece,but in theeconomic crisis, all they're finding is more misery.
The war in Afghanistan grinds on, with dire consequences for all concerned, but particularly grim for civilians. One third of all refugees in the world, an estimated 3 million people, are Afghans. Thousands are making the dangerous journey into Iran, through Turkey and across to bankrupt Greece. With Greeks now facing harsh austerity measures, Aaron Lewis reports, the new arrivals are getting an increasing hostile reception.
REPORTER: Aaron Lewis
Unlikely as it seems, these fields are the gateway to Europe for hundreds of thousands of refugees. Every morning in the sleepy border town of Orestiada, refugees who have made it across the Turkish-Greek border, walk up to the local police station and simply turn themselves in.
AHMED (Translation): We tried all we could not to give ourselves up, but there was no other way. We were hungry and thirsty but we had no other choice, we had to give ourselves in to the police.
They're happy to be alive and full of hope for a new life in Europe.
REPORTER: You want to go to Athens?
REFUGEE: Go to Athens, and see my family, a lot of my friends and family and stay there.
GEORGE SALAMANGKAS, CHIEF OF POLICE (Translation): Greece's eastern border is also Europe's eastern border - we are trying to defend it daily.
Orestiada's chief of police George Salamangkas sees firsthand the perils of the border.
GEORGE SALAMANGKAS (Translation): The really unfortunate thing in this situation is when these people try to cross from Turkey and they lose their lives in the river because they can't swim or the traffickers urge them to cross by foot and sadly they drown.
From the police station they'll be taken to a detention centre, but most will be released within days.
GEORGE SALAMANGKAS (Translation): Keep in mind that we have arrested 36,000 people in our area - a huge number. That number, unfortunately, is detrimental to the living conditions in this centre.
The conditions inside the centres are deplorable, with hundreds cramped shoulder to shoulder in small and unsanitary rooms.
REFUGEE (Translation): Actually, inside here, the toilets are filthy, it is uninhabitable, bathrooms and taps are broken. I am not alone, there are many Afghans.
The Greek government has been pilloried by organizations like Human Rights Watch and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees for the conditions inside the detention centres.
GEORGE SALAMANGKAS (Translation): Yes, we receive negative criticism from many organisations but I think it was a bit unfair, they did not take into consideration that we had to cope with a huge number of people during 2010.
With the centres well beyond capacity, most new refugees are released after only a few days, with an order to leave Greece within a month, an order that few will follow. When the gates finally open, there's a commercial bus waiting, bound for Athens, 1000km away, for anyone with 70 euros still in their pocket to pay for the bus fare.
This is Victoria Square, the one place in Europe where an Afghani refugee is almost certain to meet someone from back home. Ahmed is an 18-year-old whose family escaped from Afghanistan to Iran, then sold everything to send him on ahead into Europe.
AHMED (Translation): It is my second day in Athens, in this park I found friends and families I knew from Iran. So when I came to Athens I found all my friends from Iran. It was very interesting, all my friends had gathered in that park.
Ahmed was told to come here when he got to Athens, and that he could find a place to stay and even some work. But while he's happy to be amongst old friends, no one seems able to help him.
AHMED (Translation): By God, it makes me so happy to see all us Afghans here, but we all have problems and we are unfortunate. Some have no money or have run out of it, some come from basements, some from the streets, this is why no one is enjoying it, they are all unlucky.
In the park he's told that things in Athens have got so dire that to survive he may have to turn to petty crime.
AHMED (Translation): It was very strange, because we heard that there were employment opportunities here - if you get to Greece, you can work. It's strange when they say there is no work here. I feel quite hopeless and don't know what to do, I am worried and I am scared now too because I have never done anything wrong in my life. In my whole life I have never stolen anything at all but when I run out of money, I'll have no other choice. I will end up doing bad things, though my conscience says no.
Finding a place to sleep is just as hard, most of the asylum seekers end up sharing a single room with five, 10, even 20 other people. Alisander has been living in this one room with his family for over a year, barred by the slum lords from using even the bathrooms down the hallway.
ALISANDER (Translation): The only other facilities we are allowed are a shower a week, no more than that. Heating and cooling systems are not provided and in winter we sleep with all our clothes on because it is so cold.
Families like Alisander's get trapped in Athens because the European Union has demanded that Greece stop refugees from moving on to other larger or wealthier countries in Europe and anyone caught making the trip is returned to a detention centre in Greece. Yet things are so difficult here that Alisander is still trying to smuggle his family to Italy or to France. The last time he tried the smugglers stole the money he had brought to pay them, and beat him nearly to death.
ALISANDER (Translation): There were 25 people behind him and he attacked me, when I asked why, they all started beating me. One took out a knife, I was stabbed and I noticed that the people around me all ran away.
There is growing violence against immigrants in Athens, with the police providing little protection.
REFUGEE (Translation): They beat people, even now, there's a party that beats up any immigrants they can find. The father of one of the boys was attacked and injured and no one knows who did it. All I know is that they are suffering more here than at home.
Life for these refugees has only worsened as the economic woes have reached a state of crisis. Many Greeks are looking for someone to blame. Greece has had waves of immigrants before, but never ones that were so racially or culturally different, so the recent migrants have become an easy target for nationalist anger. The most aggressive attacks have come from the far right Golden Dawn Party. Its founder, Nicolas Michaloniakos, says that his party doesn't encourage violence against foreigners - it merely tolerates it.
NICOLAS MICHALONIAKOS, GOLDEN DAWN PARTY (Translation): I regard violence as a reality of life, we cannot, as a legitimate political party impose our will by violence so we participate in elections. Beyond that, offering aphorisms is meaningless.
The Golden Dawn Party is one of the new wave of ultra-nationalist parties now sweeping through Europe and Greece.
NICOLAS MICHALONIAKOS (Translation): Greece has become the garbage bin of Europe - no one sought the consent of the Greek people for the arrival of millions of foreigners in our country. The crystal clear position that we have is that all of them should leave our motherland. It's a fact that our party's popularity has increased significantly in recent years because the people have been awakened by the huge economic and social problems.
Golden Dawn doesn't just talk big, they've been at the centre of marches like this one which was staged after a Greek man was attacked by an illegal immigrant. The Church steps are still scrawled with the words 'foreigners out' and 'Greece for Greeks'.
WOMAN (Translation): When refugees are obliged to leave their land, and seek refuge in another country, they have expectations. We were expecting to be treated as guests, but they mistreated us.
Not everyone here is against the migrants, Spiros Sapounas is a doctor who volunteers providing basic medical assistance to refugees out of a state medical van that parks daily at Victoria Square.
DR SPIROS SAPOUNAS (Translation): In this unit we have ascertained that violence or abuse happens from both sides, we have treated many immigrants with injuries inflicted by Greeks. Also robberies and other incidents that I won't describe, we have seen photos of kids, etc. Therefore, definitely both sides behave badly.
The mobile unit, run by the state medical agency Kelpno, is a pilot project an attempt to help deal with the medical problems that develop from the dangerously unhealthy conditions that migrants are now forced to live in. Dr Sapounas hopes that when the program is expanded, they will be able to do more.
DR SPIROS SAPOUNAS (Translation): Put some more underneath, ask her if she thinks he is doing better! We are sure that from next week we will start blood testing through the mobile units for hepatitis and HIV virus, and shortly we will start chest X-rays which will help us enormously in the prevention of infectious diseases.
Some of the asylum seekers do make it further on into Europe - hoping to find better conditions than the trap that Athens has become. When I go to say goodbye to Ahmed I'm told he has disappeared. The hope among his friends is that he is safely on his way to Italy. Many people here wish they had never made the arduous journey from their home in Afghanistan in search of peace and a better life.
ALISANDER (Translation): Life in Greece is harder than the life we had in Iran or Afghanistan. For years our lives were in danger there and there is no difference now. Since we arrived all that has happened is that we keep getting harassed, tortured and abused.
REFUGEE (Translation): Greece has it's own problems. Our request to the Greek government is if they can't help us they should at least let us leave easily
MARK DAVIS: You can visit the website for an interview with Aaron Lewis about the plight of the refugees killed in their own country and shunned everywhere else. It was reported this week that Greece has started digging a trench along its border with Turkey to stem the flow of asylum seekers.
Original Music composed by Vicki Hansen
Additional footage courtesy of UNHCR
7th August 2011