They are watching you, the fierce eyes of the locals, sitting or standing, motionless like statues. We are in the poorest neighbourhood of Athens, far from the downtown tavernas surrounding the ancient divinity of Acropolis. Pushers, prostitutes and drug addicts. A bewildered tourist would have no clue that the abandoned City Plaza Hotel was still running on full capacity.
60.000 refugees are currently trapped in Greece. After the Northern border closed in 2015, they have nowhere to go. The EU has closed its walls. Many are living in the streets or in the island camps under inhumane conditions. Their future is uncertain.
Two years ago a group of activists and volunteers forced their way into the building. For six years, the City Plaza had been empty as the economic crisis swept the country. The volunteers turned the hotel into a shelter and have - over the past few years - accommodated thousands of people. With 150 children and 200 adults currently staying, City Plaza Hotel is more vibrant and alive than ever before.
Eleni Kyramargiou is a Team Coordinator and has been a volunteer at City Plaza from the very beginning. Since the early days of cleaning and preparing the hotel for its new residents, City Plaza has taken over almost all of her waken hours.
"The refugee crisis of 2015 is not only a Greek Tragedy - it was a European Tragedy."Eleni Kyramargiou, Team Coordinator
There are only four rules: no drugs, no alcohol, no violence and everybody must help with the shifts. Every morning, noon and evening it’s a collaborative effort to make food to close to four hundred people. Iraqis, Iranians, Syrians, Somalians, Kurds, Afghanis; all living under the same roof, one family next to the other. From the very beginning, people have been urged to mix between nationalities and languages – culture and religion.
Eleni Kyramargiou counts this as one of City Plaza’s greatest achievements: With thousands of residents over its two years of existence, City Plaza has never had a single violent dispute. It could seem like a small miracle - but moving from the island camps and into the city has a dramatic effect on the well-being and mental health of the refugees, says Eleni Kyramargiou.
A couple of streets down from City Plaza a huge line formed; men, women and children, the refugees. It was close to noon and I hadn’t eaten anything yet - so I went into a café, had a burec and espresso. Rolled a cigarette. Still thirsty, I went across the street to a small grocery store. I entered as the shopkeeper tried to explain to a foreign man how much money he owed for a package of flatbread: “1 Euro 40”, he kept saying, “no, 4-0!”, spelling it out. The shopkeeper shook his head and looked at my two cans of coca-cola with resignation: “1.40 please”. You could see the line of people from the shop window. I asked him what they were all waiting for. His eyes changed to a shade of deeper kindness: “Food”, he said.
When people call the refugee crisis Europe’s 9/11, it is not only because of the chock that peaked with the viral picture of three year old Alan Kurdi, washed up on a beach in Turkey. Europe’s mentality has changed dramatically over the past years. The change can be felt in every European country and has given rise to an insurgence of nationalist ideologues, racial fear and discrimination. This is also the case in Greece where the fascist party, Golden Dawn, is making life insecure for refugees sleeping in the streets of Athens.
The fear of Golden Dawn was one reason a 24-hour security watch was implemented. Another was the risk of eviction by the police. This could happen any day - but for now, the leftist Syriza government has turned a blind eye to City Plaza's civil disobedience. For the safety of the residents, however, it must be clear at any time who is allowed into the building.
For Mahmoud Alzaidi, 21, the meeting with City Plaza has been a prosperous one. He himself came from Iraq and left Baghdad for Turkey before finally finding his way to Greece. He quickly understood how to manage life on his own. With the help of City Plaza, he has learned English and is now studying English at the American University meanwhile working as a translator at City Plaza. He says City Plaza is the first step for many refugees coming through Athens.
For some, however, it is also the last. Refugees can easily wait a year or more before they receive any decision on their asylum status. For those trapped in the island camps, the mental stress is even worse. Another young man, 17 years old, who prefers to be anonymous, describes how he fled from Somalia and via boat arrived in Lesbos and stayed in the notorious refugee camp, Moria, for 4 months. It was winter, but people were sleeping in small tents, up to three at a time. Whenever it rained, his clothes and everything would soak and he would freeze. Violence, drug use and despair was ravaging. He managed to flee the camp by hiding in a truck that drove on to a cargo ship bound for the mainland.
Deterrence involves “an action or policy designed to instil fear of the consequences of committing some other action”.
Since more than a million refugees arrived in Europe in 2015, the numbers have decreased and last year saw 171.300 arrivals – a drop of nearly 85%. The EU-Turkey deal has had significant consequences for the migration patterns of refugees. Transferring €6 billion from EU-countries to Turkey, Turkish authorities have been committed to prevent and return refugees crossing to Europe back to Turkish territory. The country now has close to 4 million refugees within its borders. A situation described by political scientists as Turkey holding a “weapon of mass migration”.
The above map is an interactive visualization of refugee casualties as they tried crossing the Mediterranean from 2000-2016. A visualization like this is invariably incomplete as many more unregistered boats must be assumed to have sunk. However, during the dramatic decrease of refugees coming to Europe, one causal assumption would be that the fortification of European borders succeeded in - first, decreasing the number of refugees - and second (due to the deterred masses of refugees), the overall death toll in the Med.
“Waste persons are those no longer useful as resources to a society for whatever reason, and have become apatrides, or noncitizens. Waste persons must be placed out of view- in ghettos, slums, reservations, camps, retirement villages, mass graves, remote territories, strategic hamlets - all places of desolation, and uninhabitable.”
- James P. Carse
This logic turns out to be flawed. The increased focus on policing from especially the Liberian side of the Med has pushed refugees and their traffickers to ever more desperate means. The statistics speak for themselves. While the total number of deaths decreased due to the overall decline in refugees, the risk of dying underway increased. If you are a refugee setting across the Med, the risk increased from 1 in 269 in 2015 to 1 in 55 in 2017. In other words, the risk of drowning more than doubled in the period.
The issue of the refugee crisis has long ago become a matter of international security penetrating every level of regional geopolitics. For the European nation state, a government stands or falls by the degree to which it can show a tough stance on refugees or “alien intruders”. The latest example was the ’18 Italian election and the surge in right-wing populist parties.
The City Plaza Hotel proves that it is possible, on a civic level, to insist on the value of human rights and - as a local community – to act and make a difference. Because truth is, with the discord within the EU and its inability to agree on any kind of quota system, no solutions will be found for the millions of people trapped around the region. Leaders don’t want to be confronted with their impotence to solve the problem.
Following the logic that what can’t be seen doesn’t exist, they have successfully created a barrier between themselves as responsible problem solvers - and the issue. Of course, that doesn’t mean the refugee crisis is anywhere near over. And with the refugee masses accumulating by the millions in countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, it will only take a minor destabilization in the region to catalyze a migration of unprecedented scale since WW2. Nothing has been done to accommodate this scenario.
See the full documentary, City Plaza Hotel, here: