SOCIETY

Jobless migrants heading back

One of the people working at the International Organization for Immigration (IOM) center in Alimos, on the southern coast of Athens, points to a bearded elderly man with a lost look about him.

?He doesn?t speak anymore. He?s lost his voice. All his papers were stolen and now he?s lost. He used to talk to us, half in Greek, half in Urdu, but with all the stress, he?s just stopped talking,? the IOM employee tells me and then goes off to look for someone else from Pakistan to try to get through to him.

The old man and the other migrants at the IOM center in Alimos are all there for one reason alone: to leave Greece and go back home. Most are happy to speak to me, but they all stubbornly refuse to tell me their names and are adamant about not being photographed.

One middle-aged man from Pakistan speaks in broken English, with a few Greek phrases thrown in here and there. ?I?ve been in Greece for six years, the last three without work,? he tells me. ?You can find something for a couple of days, but then nothing. I went to Halkida, where things were moving at first, but that ended too. There is no work on Crete either. I have no problem with Greeks, but I have nothing to eat. My family back home keeps telling me to go back.?

Four of his compatriots refuse to tell me their story, but they nod and respond in their own language when they wants to add something. ?It is the same for all of them,? he explains. ?There is no work in Greece. Even you Greeks can?t find work, so how can we??

Two young men from Ghana tell me that they have been in Greece for a year. One of them started off in Thessaloniki and then moved to Athens. The story here is the same. ?We came here for something better, but it?s hopeless. We want to go back home,? one of the two men tells me. The same goes for another two young men from Tanzania, whose tale was similar.

All of these people are at the IOM center so that they can get the paperwork they need in order to travel. In their eyes, you can see a combination of need, survival and nostalgia.

In one of the center?s offices, three Iraqi men sit together on a small couch. Their Greek is almost fluent. ?We?re staying but we?re sending our families back,? one of them tells me. ?We?ve been here for 12 years; how can we just pick up and move again? But we have to send our families home so that we can make ends meet here. Only that guy,? he says, pointing to the man at the other end of the couch, ?decided to go back.?

He?s a young man and a refugee with asylum, but he wants to go back to Iraq. ?I have been here for seven years; I have a job, but I don?t have papers. I live in Lavrio and, most days, by the time I get to my bus stop I?ve already been stopped by the police. Once they took be to the Aliens Bureau [a processing center for undocumented migrants near the center of the capital], but after I showed them my refugee card they let me go. I want to go home.?

I ask the three men whether the situation in Iraq has improved over the past few years. ?Iraq is a beautiful country,? they all agree, ?but we are 50 years behind the times. You go out on a date with a girl and you could get killed. Here in Greece, we can talk to a woman without a problem, but over there, they?re crazy.?

All of the people at the center say that they have no problem with the Greeks, though one of the workers tells me that some are too scared to move around the city until they have all of their papers after the killing of a Greek man in May ignited a spate of racially motivated attacks by far-right groups in many parts of Athens.

However, it is not just undocumented migrants who want to go back home.

Mario is from Albania and has been in Greece for over 10 years. He has a residence permit, worked in construction and on farms, and has a wife and a child. But, he tells me in a telephone interview, he has decided to take his family home.

?I never would have imagined this 10 years ago,? he says. ?But there you have it.?

Repatriation campaigns

According to the International Organization for Immigration (IOM), during the first repatriation drive in Greece, from July 2010 to June 2011, 1,097 immigrants went back home. Of these, the greatest number were from Pakistan (374), Afghanistan (352) and Iraq (124).

Meanwhile, a second drive is still pending as the IOM is waiting for the Citizens? Protection Ministry to decide which body will carry it out before the deadline, which is in June next year.

The European Union?s Voluntary Assisted Return and Reintegration Program has been up and running for several years in other member states, but 2010 was the first time Greece participated in the campaign.

According to the program, the IOM issues the interested parties with valid travel documents and provides them with 300 euros of start-up money, which is handed over either at the airport of departure or arrival. A network of 440 IOM offices around the world help the returning migrants make the transition back home.

Once the IOM has issued the travel documents, the migrants are taken to the Aliens Bureau, where their fingerprints are run through the system to make sure that there are no criminal charges pending against them. If this is the case, they are held, though it is rare.