ATHENS — Thousands of Syrians fleeing war and misery are making their way to Europe, and many are coming through Greece, whose Mediterranean islands stretch within tantalizing reach of home.
Once they get here, many wish they’d never come.
Greece’s economic meltdown has left little food, medicine or other aid for refugees washing up on its shores. The new arrivals are packed into detention camps, and those who stay longer hide in cramped, barren apartments, fearing anti-immigrant violence on the streets. At least 11,000 Syrians have been arrested for crossing into Greece without permission since the conflict started more than two years ago, with more arrested in the first four months of 2013 than in all of 2011.
With pressure building in crowded refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, Turkish officials have said in recent weeks that they will ask the United States and Europe to take in more refugees. But the reception in Greece suggests that refugees may face an uphill battle on a continent beset by a financial crisis and anxiety about a stream of foreigners.
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“We imagined a European country that would be better for the future. If I had known there would be no jobs in Greece, we would have stayed in Turkey,” Ahmed Habash, 33, said one recent afternoon in the cramped, dark Athens apartment he shares with his wife, two sons and another Syrian man with whom they are splitting costs.
Treaties that govern the European Union’s external borders prohibit Syrians who have reached Greece without visas from continuing farther into Europe. So the refugees find themselves marooned in a country with 27 percent unemployment that has slashed social services for its own citizens.
“People arrive in Europe and they get treated worse than your worst nightmare. You get stuck in a cell, and you go in healthy and emerge sick,” said Petros Mastakas, an official at the Athens office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
At the crude reception camps that Greek authorities have set up on the tiny islands that dot the Aegean, which are more used to hosting wealthy tourists than desperate refugees, “you don’t get to go outside to walk for 10 minutes a day,” Mastakas said.
Refugees with means
More than 34,600 Syrians have applied for asylum in E.U. countries since the conflict in their country started. The United Nations estimates that 1.6 million people have fled Syria and that 8,000 more are streaming out every day. Most of those who make it to Europe are middle-class, with enough money to afford the $3,000 to $10,000 that smugglers demand for passage and fake documents.
Habash and his wife, Rangen Hali, 34, floated into Greece late one night in mid-2012 on a cramped inflatable boat that ferried them across the Evros River, which separates Turkey and Greece. At home in Aleppo, Syrian government forces had arrested Habash for a week, then released him, he said. The family knew it was time to go, even though Hali was eight months pregnant.
The smugglers dropped Habash, his wife and their 4-year-old son in a forest and left them to wander, until they found a village. They turned themselves in to the Greek police, who put them in a crowded detention camp for a night, then let them go. The family made it to Athens, where, weeks later, Hali gave birth to a second son by cesarean section in a hospital.
The nurses “treated me worse than everybody else,” she said. “Nobody even checked the wound for five days.”
There’s no money to go to the hospital now, she said, and the Greek government pays only for the worst emergencies. Sometimes, if the couple need medicine for the children and can scrape up the cash, they go to a pharmacy.
“There’s no saving” money, said Habash, who once had a steady job at a textile factory in Aleppo. “It’s just working to survive.” He covered a couple of months of rent on their apartment by painting the owner’s house, though the only way he will be able to pay it this month, he said, is because “God exists.”
Many nights, Hali said, she and her husband skip dinner so that their sons have enough to eat.
Sometimes they go to a nearby playground, walking past ouzo bars and scruffy coffee shops to reach the swings and seesaws. But mostly they stay close to home, worried about being attacked by supporters of the anti-immigrant neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, which won 7 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections last year. All Syrian refugees in Greece know someone who has been attacked. The police, they say, do nothing.
Under the radar
Greece is scrambling to improve its asylum system, which accepts applications during a two-hour window every Saturday. Those who apply are thrown into police-administered detention, along with ordinary criminals, for up to 18 months while the country’s understaffed bureaucracy makes a decision.
Many applications are rejected, and the threat of detention leads the vast majority of the Syrian refugees in Greece to try to avoid authorities while they save enough money for a fake passport to get to Northern Europe. Just 420 Syrians have applied for asylum in Greece since the beginning of 2012, according to U.N. figures. A new, civilian-run asylum office will open in Athens this month, and officials intend to overhaul the application process when it does.
European leaders say they have not received significant numbers of requests from Syrians for resettlement, but they acknowledge the need to do more to help. Germany recently announced that it would resettle 5,000 refugees this month.
Sweden also has taken many of those coming to Europe. But whether European countries could take significantly more refugees without popular backlash is another question, leaders say, with economies in recession and deep skepticism about whether the migrants would ever go home.
“Not as many people as we expected have come to Europe, by far,” said Cecilia Malmstroem, the E.U. commissioner for home affairs.
“The general attitude in Europe is rather restrictive today,” Malmstroem said. “We have never had as many xenophobic parties in political power since the Second World War.”
Washington Post special correspondent Elinda Labropoulou contributed to this report.