Past the rolling hills that hug to the shores of the Adriatic Sea, a port in Northwestern Greece, Igoumenitsa, appears suddenly. A few dozen kilometers out toward to sea, the green peaks of the island of Corfu can be seen in the evening haze. At first glance, Igoumenitsa seems orderly and pleasant – at least near the port – and, despite its remote location hemmed beside Albania, it is relatively cosmopolitan with modern cafes and multilingual patrons. Among the public were a remarkable number of police who eyed my unfamiliar car suspiciously.
Igoumenitsa was my first stop on this journey to explore Greece’s dire migration situation after hearing from humanitarian NGO’s that it had become a hotspot for migrants who had set up camps on the mountainside next to the port. Unable to successfully make their journey to Italy due to tight border controls, and refusing to go back to Athens to live on a few euros per day, over a thousand migrants, mostly from Africa, built iron and plastic shelters in view of the boats that they believed would take them to a better life.
These people were trapped yet seemed determined to make due of their situation. To return home with nothing to show for their efforts would be seen as a failure…an embarrassment even. In an act of desperation, they had built a camp in the trees and for over a year, the migrants lived together in squalor without running water, electricity and adequate shelter. The daily menu consisted of scraps found in dumpsters. And, on a lucky day, was supplied by NGOs that were quickly overwhelmed by the amount of hungry people arriving each day. Police harassment was common and the local media raised fears of disease and crime brought by migrants. One local newspaper I picked up while I was in town characterized the migrants as animals and coldly poked fun at their unfortunate living conditions.
Upon my arrival in Igoumenitsa, I found a local café to get some answers. In Greece, a local café can provide a wealth of candid information. One question can spark a heated debate among patrons who cannot help but add their own two cents. I asked the waitress if she knew anything about the situation on the mountain and she directed my attention to a local newspaper with pictures of the camp, which had been destroyed by police days earlier. I headed there immediately.
Where the camp once stood only remnants remained – shoes, toothbrushes, some medications, torn bits of plastic tarp used for shelter. The smell of human excrement overpowered my senses. Most of the migrants had either been arrested or fled further into the mountains. Some had been taken to a hotel by the NGO that was looking after them. I pulled my car into the open lot next to the mountain where the bulldozer that had razed the camp still sat. Voices could still be heard in the trees as I drew near in order to take pictures. I was nervous standing in the forest along a relatively unused road knowing that hundreds of desperate men (and they were all single men) peered at me through the forest.
After only a few minutes a police car pulled into the area and two officers asked me what I was doing. Suddenly the voices in the trees went silent. Other officers were called in to find out who I was and why I was here taking pictures of the destroyed camp. I suspected they were nervous about pictures of destruction in their quiet town being shown around the world. They were pleasant but suspicious and demanded identification. When the police left I laid a bottle of water and five Euros near the forest. It disappeared within seconds.
That night I slept in Parga, a resort town 25 minutes down the coast, which the police had recommended. Hotels were cheaper there and the waterfront cafes provided an escape from the difficulties I had witnessed in the daytime. As I made my way back to my hotel in the late evening, I could not help but think of the hundreds of migrants who remained in the forests above Igoumenitsa. They lived in complete uncertainty and hope seemed a cruel joke. The thought of France, the UK or Sweden as a paradise for immigrants was laughable to me but to them it was all that was keeping them sane. It seemed strange that as I laid my head down on a pillow, there were fellow humans just miles away laying their heads down in the dirt.
The next day, I met the dozens of migrants with the help of Medecins du Monde, a French NGO, who had been put in a nearby hotel for shelter. They were frail and exhausted but friendly. What was apparent, however, was their hopelessness. One Sudanese from Darfur explained to me during a game of basketball in the courtyard of the hotel how he had spent more than a year living in squalor on the mountain. He said that he would never return to Sudan but that he had never imagined himself eating out of dumpsters on the side of the road. Europe was supposed to have opportunities and “human rights” – a word that was constantly referred to by migrants. Sweden had “human rights,” France had “human rights,” England had “human rights,” but Greece had none.
“I have traveled to many places in the world and have done many things,” he told me. “This is very bad. Life is hard here in Greece without human rights.”
Initially hopeful that Europe would offer a better life, he said that he had lost all hope and that he thought about making the perilous trip back to Turkey to look for work. It was the first time I had heard such sentiments from migrants in Europe but would not be the last.
Another Sudanese named Idriss, who had become my unofficial translator for the day, seemed more comfortable in Greek society despite a harrowing story of survival. He chatted with the Greek hotel owners and helped them out when he could. He recounted to me a story of a Greek driver stopping on the road while he walked from the border of Turkey to the nearest bus station. The driver gave him water, money and directions. The gesture was never forgotten and it seemed no matter the hardship, he remembered that Greece could be a kind and hospitable place.
I took out my camera during dinner to get pictures and was immediately confronted by several Sudanese telling me to put my camera away. They said that they did not want to be photographed during the only period in their journey in which they had a hot meal and a cool place to sit. Many had lived in makeshift shelters for months and in a photo it would look as if the Greek state had been taking care of them all along. Understanding their concern, I obliged.
At some point in the day, I left with a group from Medecins du Monde, which consisted of young Greek do-gooders facing a seemingly impossible situation. During my time with them I marveled at the scale of disaster that they were expected to remedy. That day, they were on their way to rescue an 18-year old Eritrean boy who had been living in the forest after police destroyed his shelter. I waited in a gas station parking lot with Zoi, a 25-year old nurse from central Greece who had been assigned to Igoumenitsa by Medecins du Monde for the summer.
After a phone call from the boy (though many migrants barely had enough to eat, some still had cell phones) we pulled away and found him a few hundred meters up the road where he had just appeared out of an olive grove. He looked around nervously and got in the car. He was wide-eyed with a shy smile and shook my hand as he got in the car. His clothes were ragged and he carried nothing with him except a few papers. While we drove him to the hotel I asked him if he would ever think of returning to Eritrea after all of this hardship. “Never” he responded.
Destination Nowhere: Igoumenitsa