Greece, once a safe haven for thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing a war-torn country, has become a place of despair and frustration, according to a Victoria man at the heart of it.
John Skene, a 28-year-old Victoria resident and business student, has put school on hold indefinitely to help with the Syrian refugee crisis in Greece.
He’ll spend the next three months volunteering in Piraeus, a port in Athens that sees roughly 6,500 refugees on a daily basis. The group of volunteers are occupying a cafe and warehouse at the port to distribute between 5,000 to 8,000 meals a day, water and tents.
Skene first travelled to Greece last year to help in a camp, where he directed refugees and distributed food and water.
However, since then the European Union and Turkey struck an agreement intended to cut off the flow of immigrants out of Turkey. As part of the deal, migrants arriving in Greece are to be sent back to Turkey if they do not apply for asylum or if their claim is rejected.
Skene said the deal has had a profound impact in Greece — refugee camps around the City of Molyvos that were once sanctuaries for hundreds of people are being turned into detention centres and many large NGOs such as Doctors without Borders and Oxfam have pulled out because they refuse to help people in the so-called prisons.
Prior to the deal, when refugees arrived in Greece, they would be greeted by volunteers, sent to refugee camps and in some cases, reunited with family.
Now, when they arrive, they are told to go back to Turkey or get on a bus and be taken to a refugee-camp-turned-detention-centre, where conditions are poor and there is little food, water, protection and no freedom of movement, according to Skene.
Many refugees refuse to leave the port and end up squatting in abandoned airports, jails, schools and warehouses within the city.
“These people are left stranded in Greece. A lot of people are being forced to claim asylum in a country with no opportunity for them. The last time I was here, there was a feeling of when you help people you say ‘good luck in Germany or wherever you’re going’. Now there’s no hope,” Skene said.
“(The deal) has changed the energy in the camps. You’re trying to convey a level of optimism when you know there isn’t any for these people.”
Human trafficking has also become a problem.
Skene runs a security team dedicated to looking out for suspicious men in the area. There are often people roaming about the port, since it’s a public space and in the past, human traffickers have been known to prey on single women and children.
He said there have been a handful of incidents where children have almost gotten into cars with suspicious people.
“This is the largest human rights violation ever. (The deal) completely throws out everything that we put in to protect refugees,” Skene said, adding one man he met had been deprived of food for a day-and-a-half.
“It’s terrifying to be here and watching it happen in a city already devastated by crisis. Greece is turning into one big refugee camp.”
Skene will be in volunteering in Greece until June.