The Skaramangas camp near the port of Piraeus is currently housing 2,624 refugees and migrants from 28 countries. Since opening on March 9, 2016, its population has risen and fallen repeatedly. Its location outside the urban center but close to stores, accessibility to public transport and the absence of negative reactions from the local community made Skaramangas a quick and fast solution when extra space was needed to accommodate refugees on the mainland. That was until a few days ago.
From the moment we entered the camp, we were followed by a group of Afghan nationals who, in broken English, diverted our attention from the official area of the center, which is lined with containers, and led us to an space were tents had been put up two weeks earlier to accommodate about 300 people – mainly Afghan families – who were transferred from the islands. When we arrived, all the tents that had been set up by the United Nations Refugee Agency were lying collapsed on the cement floor.
On one side, there were the remnants of the three tents that burned to a cinder on March 31, 2019. “I was cold,” an Afghan man told us, saying that one of the refugees had rigged a power line so they could bring a heater into their tent. But it was very windy, and before they knew it, a fire had started. A father and his child were seriously injured and remain hospitalized. The people we spoke to didn’t know anything more about their conditions, although they did say the mother and her two other children were doing better and had already left the hospital.
The Afghans showed us video of the fire, the hospital where the baby was being treated in an intensive care unit, the overcrowded Moria reception center on Lesvos and the camp on Samos where they stayed for many months waiting to be transferred somewhere better. They ended up in tents set up directly on the cold cement floor and drinking water from the communal showers.
As a result, none of the newcomers wanted to be housed in a tent. “It’s too dangerous,” they said. They said they just sit near the spot where the fire started and wait. The only stable element in their daily lives is the three meals they are provided with at the camp. “Soon” there will be new containers to house them, they had been told. “We are waiting for the ministry to give us the green light,” those running the camp told us.
We asked where people were sleeping in the meantime. “Anywhere,” explained Apostolis Paterakis of the Solidarity group, which was set up by local residents and has been helping at the camp since it opened. “On the benches, or in other containers, if there is any space available.”
“When we came here, there was dirt and mud everywhere,” he continued. Now their work mainly comprises distributing donations to the people at the center depending on their needs. “For example, we have powdered milk and diapers for the little ones.”
Today, apart from the newcomers, the rest of the refugees are accommodated in 403 containers around the center. “As soon as one container empties, new people move in. The needs are great,” said Nizar Sanoussi, the director of Skaramangas, selected by the Migration Policy Ministry.
Most people at the camp are Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and Iranians, but there are also Kuwaitis, Lebanese, Palestinians, Algerians, Burundians, Congolese, Egyptians, Ethiopians, Malians, Moroccans and more.
There are about 400 children at Skaramangas: The toddlers go to a kindergarten inside the camp, while the older children are driven to local schools where they attend classes. Most of the migrants staying at the center were transported from the islands.
Iraqi-Kurd Hardi Salehi initially couldn’t remember the camp where he and his three children were first registered when they arrived on Lesvos. “Moria. Yes, Moria. It was terrible,” he told us. He has already spent three years in Skaramangas. His first asylum application was rejected and he is now waiting for his appeal to be examined. “When will it be examined?” we asked. “I don’t know. Maybe in September, from what I’ve been told.” “And if the ruling is again negative?” “I don’t know what I’ll do. I have learned Greek and my kids go to school. I don’t know what I’ll do,” he responded.
There are many more people who have been at Skaramangas for three years. When they obtain asylum seeker status, they are entitled to 100 euros per person per month, which they mainly use to buy food. The food distributed in the camp is only available for the new arrivals who have not yet been registered in the system.
Some camp residents have found jobs in the area, others have started their own businesses inside the camp. Mohma Karfn is from Syria and has set up a fully equipped grocery store with a fridge and scales. He showed us the invoices. “I bought everything with invoices, legally. Since I cannot open a store on Athinas Street, I opened one in Skaramangas,” he laughed. Apart from the grocery store, we saw a barber’s, a restaurant and makeshift shops made with tarpaulins that offer coffee and hookahs with a sea view.
When we asked the Afghans about their next steps, they told us they didn’t know. We asked Paterakis what he wanted. “More police inside the camp. There are small kids, women, and youngsters from many countries. Fights break out often,” he said.
According to official data, there are currently about 74,350 asylum seekers and refugees in Greece, of whom 59,350 are on the mainland and the rest on the islands of the eastern Aegean. Of those on the mainland, about 25,000 are housed in apartments, 6,400 in 56 small hotels around the country, while the rest are living in 26 camps. The need for new housing keeps rising as the aforementioned accommodation schemes are more or less operating at capacity.