‘It’s hard in Europe, but even harder in Afghanistan’

More and more illegal  regufeesare trying to reach the European Union via Turkey. They secretly cross the border with Greece. Europe is doing its very best to stop the immigrants.

All of a sudden it gets noisy on the inside square of the ‘detention centre’ for immigrants in Greece. About fifty young men are allowed to leave the centre today and they crowd around the fence that can open at any moment. Muhammad Gul, a 16 year old boy, is in the crowd too. To the question of where his family is, he answers: ‘In Afghanistan. I am here alone.’

The detention centre is located near the small town of Fylakia, close to the Turkish border. Many immigrants from, for example, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia first go to Turkey and then cross the border with Greece. Then they are in the European Union, the final destination of their trip. If they are caught crossing the border, the police take them to the detention centre, where they are registered.

Caught four nights ago

Up until October about three hundred immigrants per night crossed the border here. Turkey is increasingly popular as the last stop before entering the EU. The country borders countries where many refugees originate (Iran, Iraq), and Iran itself borders Afghanistan and Pakistan. Also from Africa you can get to Turkey via a few other countries. Turkey doesn’t guard its borders very well. It’s not so difficult to get in, or to slip over the European border. But Europe has had enough of it: almost two hundred border guards from different European countries are now helping the Greek police to prevent the immigrants from getting in.

Since the European border guards have been helping the Greeks, only about eighty illegal immigrants per night have been crossing the border. Muhammad Gul, the 16 year old Afghani, was caught four nights ago. ‘I first travelled to Iran, then to Turkey, and now I’m in the European Union.’ The travellers have to pay human traffickers, who know the best routes. Muhammad: ‘My parents paid about 6,000 dollars.’ That’s 4,400 euros.

Muhammad is the oldest of six children, and has two sisters and three brothers. By sending their oldest son to Europe, his parents hope for a better life for him and for their other children. ‘The first five years in Europe are the hardest, I heard’, says Muhammad. But he doesn’t really know why that is, or how it will get easier in time. Like everybody else here he first heads for the Greek capital, Athens. There he wants to earn money and then travel to another European country. ‘In Turkey and Iran I worked in a hotel. I want to look for such a job in Athens too.’

Used to a hard life

He is not daunted by the fact that there are already thousands of immigrants in Athens and that even the Greeks can hardly find a job because the economy isn’t doing so well. ‘It’s difficult in Europe, but in my country it’s even harder There is no work and it’s dangerous. I am used to a hard life.’

In the group is also a very young boy. The men shout he is eighteen, but he is obviously much younger. He joins the conversation. His name is Ashraf Mohammad and he says he is twelve. He left Afghanistan without his family.

Ashraf speaks softly: ‘It was a difficult trip, it took two months. But I didn’t need to work on the way because my parents gave me enough money.’ Ashraf’s parents borrowed money to let their son leave. ‘I have an uncle in London’, he says. ‘My parents told me to go there. With him I have a better future than in Afghanistan.’ The boys around him are all older, between about 16 and 27. They are a bit jealous of Ashraf because he is still so young. One of them says: ‘He might be able to go to school in London and get a good education. We are too old for that, we can only work.’

Ashraf has only 20 dollars left: too little for the bus to Athens. He wants to go by train, that’s cheaper. How to get from Athens to London, he doesn’t know yet. First he needs to earn money.

When did he last talk to his parents? ‘Twenty days ago’, he says. ‘In Turkey I tried but I couldn’t get a connection and here in the centre there is no phone.’ It’s the first thing he will do when he sees a phone booth in Greece: call home. And then: on the way to London. Does he think things will work out well? He shrugs his shoulders, smiles shyly and walks away.

In legal limbo

Are the immigrants allowed to stay in Europe? No, they are not. When they leave the detention centre, they are given a letter that states that they have to leave the EU within thirty days. But of course nobody does that. For Europe it’s too complicated and expensive to send everybody back to his own country. So these boys will have a life in legal limbo. But Muhammad hopes things will turn out well for him. ‘I want to work, earn money, that’s all. Nothing wrong with that, right?’

It’s ten o’clock in the morning. Muhammad gets on a bus going to Athens. That costs 60 euros, and then his money is about finished. His bed in the detention centre is taken over by another immigrant: about an hour ago a new group of young men (and one young woman) was delivered to the centre.

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