By early evening, Alexandra Park in central Athens starts to fill up with young, male migrants. They gather on benches, and some even kick a ball around, but they are not here for recreation - this is where they sleep, hoping their numbers will provide some protection from sexual predation and racist attacks.
“I wait until everyone leaves, and then at 12 or 1 I can go to sleep. Then, when it gets light at 6, I wake up again,” said Ibrahim Jafari, a 17-year-old migrant whose journey to this park started on a hillside in Afghanistan over two years ago.
Jafari had been supporting his disabled father by working as a shepherd for his uncle. One day, he was accompanied to the fields by his uncle’s son, who fell and fatally knocked his head on a rock. Convinced he would be blamed for the accident, Jafari fled to Iran, where he worked as a casual labourer. In constant fear of being arrested and deported back to Afghanistan, he saved enough money - about US$2,000, to pay smugglers to get him to Greece.
Jafari has never attended school and cannot read or write. He knew only that Greece was part of Europe, and to his mind, Europe meant jobs and the possibility of a better life. Smugglers capitalize on such ignorance about Greece, where the economic crisis has bred high levels of unemployment and a deep resentment of the hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants who have arrived in the country in recent years.
Unaccompanied minors like Jafari, most of them teenage boys from Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and West Africa, are particularly vulnerable to the hardships of migrant life in Greece. Government efforts to protect and support them are insufficient and ineffective, and NGO programmes lack coordination, according to Patricia Kirk, a Danish researcher who has interviewed over 100 unaccompanied minors living on the streets of Athens.
Exploitation and abuse
“Many have had bad experiences with authorities, so they don’t seek out help,” she told IRIN, adding that many also lie about their age.
Admitting to being a minor can mean spending months in a detention facility while authorities try to place them at one of the country’s nine centres for unaccompanied minors.
Shafi Morady, 16, who also came to Greece from Afghanistan after working in Iran, recently spent a month in detention after police raided the apartment in Athens where he was staying. His age did not afford him any special treatment.
“The food had a bad smell and there were no beds,” he told IRIN. “We just slept on the floor, and the guards kicked us for fun.”
After detention, he returned to the bed bug-infested apartment he shared with 15 others, which cost him 60 euros a month, but the money his brothers were sending from Afghanistan had run out. He was facing the prospect of sleeping in the park when IRIN interviewed him.
Photo: Kristy Siegfried/IRIN
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“I don’t feel good about it, but there’s nothing to do,” he said. “The only work is for smugglers or drug dealers, and I don’t want to do either.”
Kirk said that some of the boys earn a small income from selling recyclables and washing cars. In a desperate bid to raise enough to pay smugglers to take them to other European countries, some also accept money for sex with men who prowl the parks.
Sleeping in the parks also makes the boys vulnerable to police harassment and beatings. Jafari said that the police usually did not bother asking for his papers. "They just say 'Follow me' [into the bushes], and then they beat me," he said, lifting his shirt to display a deep welt on his back from a recent beating.
Centres for minors
NGOs like the Athens-based Greek Council for Refugees (GCR) offer assistance to those who want to move into one of the centres for unaccompanied minors, but most of the boys view moving into the 'camps', as they call them, as abandoning the hope of reaching another country.
“They give you food and somewhere to sleep and nothing else,” said Hamid, a 16-year-old Afghan migrant. “You don’t know about the future in the camps. You could be there for years.”
He has been sleeping in Pedion Areos Park since several attempts to hide on boats bound for Italy ended in beatings by police. Like many other unaccompanied minors, Hamid bears the burden of not only his future but his family’s as well. His two older brothers sold the sewing machines they relied on for their tailoring business in Iran to pay Hamid's smugglers.
Vassia Chioti, a psychologist at Praksis, another Athens-based NGO that offers medical, legal and social services to migrants, said it was common for families from Afghanistan to sell everything to send one son to Europe. “When they realize they can’t [find work], they have a lot of guilt and depression,” she said, adding that she also counsels the boys for trauma endured during their journey to Greece, their detention or time spent living on the streets.
Moustafa Akhtari*, 17, another migrant from Afghanistan who wanted to escape life as a refugee in Iran, spent six months in Athens before he accepted that, with no money or documents, he could not continue his journey. He approached GCR and agreed to be placed at a centre on the eastern Aegean island of Lesbos.
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“I’m obliged to stay here. I have no other choice,” he said bitterly. “I’m learning Greek because I can’t escape from here, and I won’t go back to Iran or Afghanistan.”
The 60 boys staying there are free to come and go as they please, but locals in the nearest village look at them with suspicion, Akhtari said. Most of the day is given over to Greek language instruction and horticulture classes aimed at helping the boys find work on local farms, but “the evenings are very boring,” said Akhtari.
With only about one in 10 of the boys succeeding in finding work on the island - most of it seasonal - Katerina Maliwtaki, a coordinator at the centre, said the boys struggle with the uncertainty surrounding their futures. "They're trapped in Greece, and the chances of them getting asylum are very low," she told IRIN.
Akhtari said he is worried less about his own future than about his family in Iran. "My father was deported to Afghanistan, and my mother and sisters are staying alone, and the prices keep going up," he said.
"I want to go to Switzerland because I think it's the most peaceful country in the world, but it's so difficult these days to cross borders unless you have lots of money to pay a smuggler."