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Afghan Refugees Stuck In Athens Limbo Far From ‘Promised Land’

Refugees and migrants arrive at Galatsi Olympic Hall near Athens, Greece, on October 1.
Refugees and migrants arrive at Galatsi Olympic Hall near Athens, Greece, on October 1.

Khodadad and his family spend day after day huddling on a square in Athens, with no money, little food, and dwindling hope of traveling on to Germany.

They and thousands of other Afghan refugees find themselves stuck in the Greek capital without adequate paperwork and short of cash after making the trip by ferry to the mainland from the Aegean islands, where they land daily from Turkey.

Among the hundreds of thousands of migrants who have come to Europe this year in the hopes of starting new lives, Afghans are finding themselves low on the unofficial pecking order.

They have traveled farther than wealthier and often better-educated Syrians, and cannot afford the journey across the Balkans to the “promised land” of Northern Europe.

"We have no money. We wait," Khodadad said as he cradled his 7-month-old baby.

Recent weeks have seen Athen’s Victoria Square – located in a run-down part of the city – turned into a makeshift camp, with thousands of mainly Afghan refugees braving the occasional downpour as they are forced to sleep out in the open.

In an attempt to take some of the burden off local authorities, the government relocated hundreds of refugees on Thursday to a sports complex in the north of the capital. Earlier in the week, it had moved hundreds of others to the former Olympic hockey stadium, only to see the square fill up again in a matter of days.

Young Afghan men crowd into cafes to charge their mobiles as big-brand mobile phone companies hawk SIM cards on the square. In the tents, families try to create some semblance of normality.

Most have nothing to do but wait.

On average, Afghans spend longer than Syrians in each country on the migrant trail to earn or collect the money needed for the onward journey. It takes longer to process their asylum applications because authorities give priority to Syrians, designated as refugees since they are fleeing a civil war.

"It's difficult; time doesn't pass. We are hungry. We eat only bread," said Khodadad, who declined to give his last name because he fears for the safety of relatives at home.

He said he paid 2,500 euros ($2,800) to a middle-man for his family's 20-day journey from the northern city of Kunduz to Greece via Iran and Turkey. They decided to brave the journey in search of a better life in Europe after his sister was killed by the Taliban. His wife, baby, and two more children aged 6 and 7 traveled with him.

"There is war in Afghanistan. Many people died. We were scared to sleep at night," he said.

The Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan with a harsh interpretation of Islamic law for five years, have been fighting to re-establish their Islamist rule after being toppled by a U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

Nevertheless, European authorities are reluctant to treat Afghans generally as refugees, partly because they have the possibility of shelter and work in neighboring Iran.

Taliban fighters captured Kunduz this week before being dislodged by U.S.-backed army units, according to Afghan authorities. Swathes of the province have repeatedly come under siege this year as the insurgency gains ground.

A record total of 420,000 refugees and migrants have fled war, persecution, and poverty on rickety boats across the Mediterranean to Europe this year, 309,000 via Greece, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Few, if any, of those who make the dangerous crossing in inflatable dinghies from Turkey to the Greek islands intend to stay in Greece, a country facing its own deep economic crisis.

Residents of Athens are divided. Some have brought food and clothes for the migrants while others demand they be relocated away from the square. Nearby shops protested by closing for two hours on Thursday.

"We are barred from using the square. This situation is unacceptable for a human population," said Marios Mihailidis, a teacher at a local elementary school. "We're not against them, we're with them, but we want them to be taken to a humane place."

Greek Migration Minister Yannis Mouzalas said the government was working nonstop to accommodate the refugees and lessen the strain on certain neighborhoods.

"I appeal to residents to be patient and to my own services to be persistent, and we will make it," he said. "There will be no miracles, but an improvement."

With reporting by Karolina Tagaris for Reuters