From Patras to Europe

From Patras to Europe
Patras, the third most populated city and third most important harbour in Greece, is historically known as “the gate to the West”, as it was one of the main points of departure for Greek immigrants heading to the United States at the turn of the 20th century.

With increasing migratory pressure in the mid 1990s, many Kurdish and Iraqi people started to gather in the proximity of the port, looking for their chance to sneak under a lorry to reach Italy and eventually, the rest of Europe. Then in the early 2000s, Afghans began to populate the surroundings of the port too.

What began as a makeshift camp soon came to host thousands of occupiers. Tensions and conflicts with the local citizens and authorities began to rise, especially as the world’s spotlights turned towards the city during the 2004 Olympic Games and the 2006 European Capital of Culture. After an arson attack on the camp in 2009, many migrants and refugees either spread within the town, or left the country through the northern borders of Albania and Macedonia.

In 2011, the beginning of the operations of the new port, now located in the southern, peripheral area of Patras, moved the issue of migration movements out of sight. Indeed, while the old settlement was in the middle of a central and wealthy neighbourhood, since the relocation of the port the remaining migrants have moved further away from the city centre into one of the poorest areas of town. However, the problems continued: Afghan and newly-arrive Sudanese migrants and refugees slowly began to occupy the abandoned factories just opposite the new port area, in the daily attempt to cross that short strip of sea dividing them from their desired destinations.

Looking at the everyday life of migrants and refugees living around Patras not only gives us insights into a local problem, but also help us gain a profound understanding of much larger scale events, such as the national and European policies on migration and asylum, the process of border enforcement and securitisation, and the global migration movement as a result of war and conflict abroad.

The presence of irregular migrants, who deliberately escape from a country tremendously hit by crises, shows the flaws of the Dublin Regulation, which legislates that the first European country of arrival (mainly Italy and Greece) has to handle any potential asylum requests. Those who applied for asylum in the past are often stuck in Greece, as their claims fall back into the old system managed by the police, with recognition rates below 1% and response times of several years. The new system, operating since June 2013 and embedded in the framework of the Common European Asylum System, undoubtedly represented a remarkable improvement, even if it still lacks personnel and funds.

Being an internationally relevant port, and thus subject to the implementation of the International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) Code, the security measures of the new port have been notably strengthened. The old port, located in the city centre, did not have enough space for the execution of controls, making breaches more likely to succeed. The new port, instead, has a buffer zone between the urban and port areas, letting security forces operate more efficiently.

Even though it is now a secondary migrant route, Patras still constitutes a crucial observation point for greater phenomena, namely the current Syrian refugee crisis. In fact, this has exacerbated the situation in Patras as well. In particular, the opening of the border with Macedonia in early summer, to let the conspicuous migrant flows go through the Balkans and reach Central European countries more safely, has prompted many migrants and refugees to leave Patras and try their luck via land. Only those who are waiting for an imminent answer to their asylum claims, or don’t have any money at all to carry on this journey, still remain in the empty factories in front of the new port.

The question of asylum also comes to the foreground. Despite attempts at harmonising European legislation on asylum, member countries still establish their own laws and policies, which often differ from case to case. Moreover, the implementation of the Dublin Regulation proved to be problematic for border countries burdened with the responsibility of examining the bulk of asylum applications, yet still wishing to control their external borders in the interest of national security.

Southern European countries began to receive migrants almost 30 years ago, inverting their long-time migrant-exporting tradition. Since then, national responses have generally focused on regulating migration flows for the purpose of their internal labour markets, while European policies have aimed to erect and increase security measures, almost completely ignoring the question of asylum. However, the latest refugee crisis showed the deficiencies of this approach: as thousands of refugees approached (and still are approaching) the Greek shores on a daily basis, European countries were compelled to temporarily suspend the Dublin Regulation, open their borders and discuss about refugees’ quotas.

It is clear, then, that the refugee crisis is first of all a European political crisis. Thus, a reinforcement of the political cooperation among member countries, in order to reach an agreement that could grant fair and equal conditions to all asylum seekers and refugees in Europe, would definitely constitute a great achievement in both humane and political terms. Most importantly, the refugee crisis is a global political crisis, which cannot be solved without a stable and definitive political solution in Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, Eritrea and others. In this sense, the world should never forget its humane, historical and political responsibilities to these people.

After consolidating a human rights background in Italy, Marco is now a third-year PhD student at SOAS University, where he is carrying out a research about migration and borders. However, his interests also comprehend broader political, economic, and social issues, which he has been developing throughout his academic, working and volunteering experiences. Thirst for reading, part-time activism in political and humanitarian associations, and overwhelming passion for travelling and photography complete his personality.