ATHENS: They arrive full of hope and ambition to idyllic Greek islands, having fled war and other perils. However, once in Athens the migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq discover a country in crisis with little to offer them.
At 6 a.m., with the sun rising over the Athens port of Piraeus, hundreds of grateful migrants disembark from ferries in the midst of summer holidaymakers.
Despite their fatigue, the relief is palpable among the migrants made up of relatively young men, but also families whose only luggage is a sleeping bag and a back-pack.
Some take selfies on their mobile phones to record their arrival.
Among them is Hisham Mohy Al Deen, 37, a Palestinian from Syria and former UN employee.
Beside him are his wife Wallaa, looking exhausted, and their three daughters — the youngest just a few months old.
Deen says he is happy to be in Greece and wants “to find a new life far from the war.”
Two weeks earlier the family set foot on the Greek island of Lesbos, in the Aegean Sea, around 20 kilometers from the west coast of Turkey where they had embarked.
Having originally left from Damascus, Deen and his family spent six days at a camp on Lesbos sleeping under the stars.
They eventually received a month’s visa and were invited to take the boat to Athens.
No one was waiting for them there except for Vodafone employees selling international telephone cards.
Nearby Daha Alwakil, 32, is having a coffee.
He left his wife and two children in Baghdad, bringing with him only 10-year-old Yassin.
“We came by boat from Turkey. Everyone came by boat,” he said. “Now I feel free.”
An hour later, word of mouth brings the new arrivals to Omonia Square in central Athens, where a huge “Welcome to Greece” banner covers the front of a building.
There, small groups of disheveled newcomers rest or seek information from migrants who arrived before them.
Lack of housing
Refugees with enough funds seek hotel rooms, others knock on the doors of charities and housing associations or set about looking for a ride to Macedonia.
Nancy Retinioti, who works for Doctors Without Borders, says the Greek system for handling new arrivals is completely overwhelmed.
“There are only around 1,000 housing units for refugees in Greece. That’s not enough.”
More than 69,000 migrants reached Greece in the first half of this year, dwarfing the 43,500 who came throughout the whole of 2014, according to the UN refugee agency.
And the numbers are increasing each month: 1,700 in January, 13,500 in April and 24,400 in June, with most people coming from Syria.
But the debt and austerity crisis menacing ordinary Greeks is also hitting the migrants.
“Before, those who gained refugee status could get a work permit. That’s been ended,” Retinioti said.
“Under the law they have access to the health system but they are facing administrative and language barriers. On top of that some doctors are demanding money to treat them, which is illegal,” she added.
Yannis Kalyvopoulos, a psychologist with Doctors Without Borders, said most of the migrants he came across were suffering from post-traumatic stress and depression.
“Many of the children have lost their parents or their relatives. They are traumatized, they’ve got sleeping problems.”
If they remain in such uncertain conditions, he warned “that will increase their symptoms. If they are in an environment that supports them, they will more easily integrate in their new country.”
According to his colleague Retinioti, many have already made up their minds.
“These people are no longer seeking asylum in Greece. With the crisis they cannot see a future here,” she says.
Three days after their arrival, Deen is no longer answering his phone. He and his family have moved on in search of brighter prospects.