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He had spent two whole days in a drawn-out group escape attempt at Patra port: dashing across the street, scrambling up the first row of fencing and then hunkering down out of sight. Some carried planks they hoped to wedge into a truck's undercarriage so it could carry them away onto a ferryboat. Others tried to cling onto the back of the truck cabs with bare hands. But every time they heard a patrol car's siren they would scatter, only to regroup and try again later.
Waseem Shahid was not ready to take plunge; he was still learning from others with more experience. “I'm observing the technique and I'll make my attempt soon,” he said.
The 32-year-old Pakistani man had crossed into Greece from the Evros border with Turkey about three months earlier. He tried to reach Serbia through the north, but found Greece's borders tightly shut. He had been in the western port city of Patra for just a few days, trying his luck. “I was told that it would take three or four attempts to get onto a boat traveling to Italy,” he said. “It doesn't seem that easy. I'm confused.”
Over the past few months, an increasing number of migrants and refugees trapped in Greece have been trying to continue their journey to Western Europe via Patra. Last September, authorities arrested 40 people with fake travel documents or hiding in trucks; in March, arrests came to 246.
Patra has always been an attractive escape gateway. In 2012, some 400 migrants from Asia and North Africa had set up camp, a maze of tents and shelters, in the ruins of the Peiraiki-Patraiki textile factory across the street from Patras's new port.
The facility is now guarded, but the camp seems to have moved to the nearby ruins of another factory.
AVEX was founded in 1922 and originally made boxes to transport Corinth's raisins until it later turned to lumber. The company's closure five years ago was the most recent in the history of the area's deindustrialization. According to a study by the Technical Chamber of Western Greece, 20 industrial units closed down in Patra in the 1976-96 period.
Walking around the former factory's vast premises, Kathimerini came across migrants and refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran who have set up tents in the old offices, the boiler room and the storage areas.
Some had been staying at official migrant centers in Athens and Thessaloniki or at the makeshift camp in Elliniko in the Greek capital before ending up here. Others were on the islands, like the young Afghan who left the Moria camp on the Aegean island of Lesvos as soon as he turned 18 in March and headed to the Greek mainland. Some had relatives in other European countries but were not eligible for the family reunion program because of their nationality or were experiencing long delays in the process. Desperate, they opted to try to leave Greece on a truck. The facility is also home to many unaccompanied youngsters aged 15 to 16.
Alecos Bourtzilas started working in Patra back when he was their age, many decades ago, first at various machine shops around town and then at AVEX, spending 30-odd years there, until it closed. “I am frightened by the fact that we cannot deal with all this uncertainty, that we 50-year-olds are considered old horses. There are no jobs. There is no respect,” said the former machinist, whose ex-colleagues also face the specter of unemployment.
He remembered young migrants sneaking onto the premises at night back in 2011, during a period when the AVEX workers had gone on strike because they weren't getting paid. Staff helped them with clothing and food. Some people in Patra continue to help the migrants. “These are people of war, chased out, frightened,” said Bourtzilas as we walked the perimeter of the AVEX factory.
"They see the port and try to get on the trucks."
Escape attempts are a daily phenomenon, taking place when ferryboats are loaded between 2 and 6 p.m., despite tight security. During one truck inspection we witnessed, the port authority officer spotted someone hiding in the undercarriage. He stooped over and shone his flashlight to get a better look. A plastic water bottle was the first thing to drop onto the asphalt. Then we saw a leg.
Even though he can't have been hiding for long, his clothes and face were blackened by exhaust fumes. His papers said he was from Afghanistan and just 15 years old.
In the former industrial zone of Akti Dymaion at Patra port there are currently recently arrived migrants and others who have been there for months, even years. The old-timers include so-called agents, migrants who claim to have already made the crossing successfully and who – for a fee – show others how to force open truck doors, where to hide and offer other tips.
Witnesses told us that they ask for their fee upfront and don't do refunds if the attempt fails. They promise to keep helping their “clients” until they succeed or simply give up.
Most of the migrants at the port try to go it alone, however, dodging the constant police and port authority squad cars patrolling the port's perimeter.
“It is a huge effort on the part of our service to ensure that the port operates smoothly but also the safety of the migrants and others in the port area,” said Patra port chief Dimitris Kyriakopoulos.
The CEO of the Patra Port Authority, Nikos Kontoes, admitted that the task has become harder in recent years but added that security measures are working and the number of successful crossings is much lower than attempts. In 2010, for example, Italian authorities returned 1,700 undocumented migrants to Patra. That number dropped to 350 in 2012 and is now at around 200 a year.
This has done nothing to deter migrants from trying.
The plan now is to build a second fence around the existing one. It will be 3 meters high and made of a transparent material so the port doesn't resemble a military facility. It will have surveillance cameras and constant patrols in the 5-meter corridor between the two fences.
The port will also be equipped with magnetic gates and x-ray machines to check cargo and luggage. The total budget for these improvement is 1.4 million euros.
Right now, only a certain number of trucks are x-rayed and this from a mobile machine on a van. Images from the scanner from older inspections that were given to Kathimerini reveal people hidden in the most unbelievable spots, in spaces so tight it would surely be hard to breathe.
Watching one botched attempt after another, Shahid lost interest and decided that Patra was not the way for him. Hefty and over 1.80 meters tall, he could not imagine clinging onto a truck.
Yet even if he had made it, he would probably be discovered. He learned that trying to escape can be a vicious cycle.