6:36am

Sat January 26, 2013
NPR Story

EU Money Sends Migrants Stuck In Greece Home

Originally published on Sat January 26, 2013 4:36 pm

Like many of the estimated 350,000 undocumented migrants living in Greece, Mohammad Afzaal is trapped in a devastated economy.

He slipped into Greece 11 years ago, when he was 24, and found good work in Athens as a house painter. He wired a chunk of his earnings to his family in the northeastern Pakistani city of Gujrat.

"Each month, I sent 200 or 300 euros back home to my wife, parents and brothers and sisters," says Afzaal, a slight man with a trim black beard. That's around $270 to $400. "I supported seven people."

He learned Greek and eventually got a temporary work permit. But three years ago, work dried up and his permit expired.

"Now, I only work one or two days a month," he says. "I barely have enough money for my food and cigarettes. I live with five other Pakistanis, and I owe them money."

Money isn't his only problem. As he waited for the bus on a recent winter day, eight men on motorcycles cornered him.

"They asked me, 'Where are you from?' " he says. "When I said Pakistan, they hit me. I could feel the bones breaking in my nose."

He wants to go home — but not deported like a criminal. So he's signing up for a voluntary repatriation program run by the International Organization of Migration and the Greek state. It's subsidized by the European Return Fund.

The program pays for his plane ticket and a 300-euro stipend (about $400).

Financing Repatriation

So far, more than 4,000 people have gone home through the program. Another 10,000 — many from Pakistan and Bangladesh — are on a waiting list, says Daniel Esdras, director of the IOM office in Greece.

Esdras says undocumented migrants must ask themselves if it's worth living in limbo in a devastated economy with a tattered social welfare net.

"Let's face it, we have a humanitarian crisis now in Greece," Esdras says. "This is the only humanitarian program that we can offer to these people."

Those who sign up for repatriation must be cleared by their embassies and Greek police before travel documents are issued. Esdras says he also urges those who are eligible for asylum in Greece, like Afghans, to apply for it, but the government is years behind on processing the huge backlog of refugee applications.

European leaders have often criticized Greece for its asylum system and border policing. The country is overwhelmed and needs EU support to manage migration, says Sjur Larsen, the Norwegian ambassador to Greece. Norway contributed funds to the voluntary repatriation program last year.

"This is truly a big challenge for Greece," Larsen says. "Once Greece hopefully comes out of the present economic difficulties, migration will be maybe the biggest challenge for this country."

Greece received about 37 million euros — nearly $50 million — from the European Return Fund in 2012 and is also financed through at least the first half of this year.

Learning To Live Together

To get word out about the voluntary repatriation program, IOM is networking with community leaders like Syed Mohammad Jamil, who has lived in Greece since 1970. He runs the Pakistan-Hellenic Society out of a third-floor office above a gritty central Athens street. At least 80,000 Pakistanis live in Greece, he says, and more than 11,000 have registered through his office for repatriation.

He says the program will help the most desperate in his community, but it doesn't address the growing distrust between Greeks and immigrants that's caused a rise in violence.

In an anti-fascist march last weekend, thousands of Greeks and immigrants mourned Shehzad Luqman, a 27-year-old produce vendor from Pakistan who was recently stabbed to death.

In the crowd was Wasim Javed, a mini-market owner from Islamabad who has lived in Athens for 20 years. He marched with his two young sons, both of whom were born in Greece.

"When I see people getting killed like this, even I want to leave," he says. "But it's hard when you've been here for years."

For many Pakistanis, he says, Greece has become home.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

For years, most of the Europeans undocumented immigrants have entered through Greece. Many have come from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan seeking work and refuge. They intend to settle in richer countries like Germany or Sweden, but strict border controls and a broken asylum system often mean these immigrants end up stuck in Greece. And there they face an unemployment rate of nearly 27 percent and a growing trend of racist crime.

As Joanna Kakissis reports, many are now turning to a new program funded by the EU that will pay their way home.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Mohammad Azaal slipped into Greece 11 years ago when he was 24. He was soon making enough money as a house painter to support his family in the northeastern Pakistani city of Gujrat.

MOHAMMAD AZAAL: (Through Translator) Each month I sent 200 or 300 euros back home to my wife, parents and my brothers and sisters. I supported seven people.

KAKISSIS: He learned Greek and eventually got a temporary work permit, but three years ago, work dried up and his permit expired.

AZAAL: (Through Translator) Now, I only work one or two days a month. I barely have enough money for my food and cigarettes. I live with five other Pakistanis and I owe them money.

KAKISSIS: Money isn't his only problem. As he waited for the bus on a recent winter day, eight men on motorcycles cornered him.

AZAAL: (Through Translator) They asked me, where are you from? When I said, Pakistan, they started to hit me. I could feel the bones breaking in my nose.

KAKISSIS: He wants to go home but not deported like a criminal, so he's signing up for a voluntary repatriation program run by the International Organization for Migration and the Greek state. It's subsidized by the European Commission. The program pays for his plane ticket to Pakistan and gives him a one time payment of $400. At least 4,000 people have gone home through this program since 2010.

Another 10,000, many from Pakistan and Bangladesh, are on a waiting list, says Daniel Esdras, director of the IOM office in Greece.

DANIEL ESDRAS: Let's face it. We're in a humanitarian crisis in Greece. And this is the only humanitarian program that we can offer to these people.

KAKISSIS: Those who sign up for repatriation must be cleared by their embassies before travel documents are issued. Esdras says he urges those who are eligible for asylum, such as Afghans, to apply for it. But there's a huge backlog of asylum applications. A reply often takes years, so refugees are forced to ask themselves tough questions.

ESDRAS: I will have a work permit? Can I get a job in this environment, and I'm a stranger, foreigner, alien whatever? No. Do I get any allowance? No. Do I have a shelter to go? No. So what's the reason why to get the refugee status?

KAKISSIS: European leaders have often criticized Greece for mismanaging its asylum system and border policing, but the country is overwhelmed and needs EU support on migration, says Sjur Larsen, the Norwegian ambassador to Greece.

AMBASSADOR SJUR LARSEN: This is truly a big challenge for Greece, and I sometimes say that once Greece hopefully comes out of the present economic difficulties, migration will be maybe the biggest challenge for this country.

KAKISSIS: Sayed Mohammed Jamil has lived in Greece since 1970 and runs the Pakistan Hellenic Society. He's spreading the word about the repatriation program to the roughly 80,000 Pakistanis here.

SAYED MOHAMMED JAMIL: More than 11,000 only Pakistani they have registered us for repatriation.

KAKISSIS: And that's just the last two months. Sayed says the program will help the most desperate in his community, but it doesn't address the growing distrust between Greeks and immigrants that's causing a rise in hate crimes. In a march against fascism last weekend, thousands of Greeks and immigrants mourned Shehzad Luqman, a young Pakistani produce vendor who was recently stabbed to death.

WASIM JAVED: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: In the crowd was mini market owner Wasim Javed, who moved to Athens from Islamabad 20 years ago. He marched with his two young sons.

JAVED: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: When I see people getting killed like this, even I want to leave, he says. But it's hard when you've been here for years. For many of us, he says, Greece has become a kind of home. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens.

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