Abdul Malek and Bashir arrived in Greece a few days ago after a two-month journey from Afghanistan via Pakistan, Iran and Turkey. Both are only 17 years old. Abdul Malek, who is from the Hazara ethnic group and Bashir, who is a Tajik, left their country to avoid conscription by the Taleban regime because of the systematic persecution they had been subjected to. The only thing they have ever known in their lives is war. These days, the two youths, like hundreds of other Afghans, gather at the Pedion tou Areos park in Athens and wait for the Church’s food handout or for the police to move them on. Some of them have been there for more than three months, living in makeshift tents, washing at park taps and sleeping on cardboard. But the sense of safety they feel there is sufficient, despite harassment by police and various elderly gentlemen seeking company. Afghan refugees began fleeing to Europe about a decade ago, and since then 149,600 of them have sought asylum abroad, 130,000 of them in the European Union alone. Of these, 31,600 are to be found in Germany, 25,500 in the Netherlands and 13,400 in Britain. In Greece over the last five years, there have been 1,043 applications by Afghans for asylum but only 103 have been approved. About 300 of them live at Pedion tou Areos, with as many again in abandoned homes in Metaxourgeio, Kolonos and other inner-city areas. Most of them are aged between 15 and 25. The luckiest are those who have acquired, if not asylum, a document from the police stating when their application is to be considered. However, non-governmental organizations allege that delays have been increasing lately, making assistance more difficult. Most Afghans who come to Greece are Hazara, Tajiks and Uzbeks. These minorities are persecuted by the Taleban for racial, political and religious reasons, said Athanassia Sykiotou, head of the Greek Council for Refugees’ legal service. They are leaving Afghanistan as their lives are in immediate danger because of ethnic cleansing. Indeed, the Hazara and Tajiks are at greatest risk because their distinctive Asiatic features make it difficult for them to hide, she added. There have been cases where men have been persecuted simply for not having a beard. The Taleban have imposed such a repressive theocratic regime that it is impossible for many ethnic groups to survive, said Petros Mastakas, legal counsel for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Greece. Rubber dinghies When they arrive here, they are exhausted after having made the last stage of the journey from the Turkish coast in children’s rubber dinghies, three or four men to a boat, he added. Who knows how many of them have drowned on the way. According to UNHCR data, asylum applications in Greece have quadrupled from 116 in 1999 to 446 in 2000. In the first half of 2001, 228 Afghans asked for asylum in Greece. Welfare provision for these people is essentially non-existent. In Athens they constitute a shifting population, living in parks and abandoned houses, said Petros Issakidis, a doctor working with Medecins sans Frontieres, whose public health groups make the rounds of these immigrant groups all over Athens. Most of them live in miserable conditions, in Pedion tou Areos, where the situation becomes much more difficult in winter, he added. The Afghans of Athens are looking for support. At every mention of their situation in their country, their position is clear: The Taleban are not Afghans, they are Arabs and Pakistanis, they say. Their only interest is the future. In Afghanistan I couldn’t go to school. I would like to learn Greek and go to school here, said 17-year-old Bashir. I would like to get a job, to make a fresh start. Two fingers are missing from his right hand, amputated by the same bomb that killed both his parents.