ATHENS- Fleeing war and strife in their homelands, the refugees and migrants who hoped to find a better life the European Union went to Turkey and were then shipped by human traffickers to Greek islands, penned up in camps and detention centers so bad that many said they preferred the horrors and hell they left behind.
Greece, eager to deal with a nearly five-year-old crisis that saw more than one million arrive in the country since 2015 – most having moved on before the EU shut its borders to them and some 96,000 still stuck and seeking asylum – would like to reduce the numbers and is offering the disenchanted a way out and way back home – voluntary deportation.
It’s a program that was quickly embraced by Kamal Mahmood, who’d been a doctor in Iraq but was nothing in Greece except a number as he and his family slept in tents and shelters before giving up and deciding to take an offer to be sent back to the country they’d been paid $12,000 to flee.
The program, said the Washington Post in a feature, is jointly funded by Greece and the EU, with the new New Democracy government especially eager to cut the numbers. So far, some 16,900 people have accepted the offer to have their return paid for, some more reluctant than others.
Some people opt to go home because they have faced initial rejections in their bids to qualify as refugees. Some have fallen into under-the-table agriculture jobs with illegally low wages. Others are simply fed up with being stuck in Greece’s notorious tent camps, which human rights groups say are intentionally squalid and overcrowded, The Post reported.
Those who leave are “people who have had enough,” Gianluca Rocco, chief of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) mission in Greece, which operates the returns program told the paper about what motivated people so scared they left their countries to want to return.
IOM is the last resort for those who’ve given up on Greece and moving onto more prosperous countries who reneged on promises to help take some of the overload. They are given travel documents – one-way passports, commercial plane tickets and several hundred euros in cash, plus, for some, another 1,500 euros for job placement or to start businesses back home.
Mahmood slept for two hours on his last night in Europe, thinking about why he and his family had taken the risk of leaving Iraq, making the move after their eldest son died of leukemia and as the doctor blamed the health care system for the loss.
Mahmood was demoted from manager at the hospital where he worked, because of what he described as a strained relationship with the Kurdish political party that influenced management decisions. The family figured Europe would be a fresh start. “It was a way to forget the pain,” Mahmood said.
Instead they found themselves in temporary shelters and camps where there was frequent violence and knife fights and battles between ethnic groups and with riot police called in to quell the trouble, too much for them to take despite their hopes.
What they hadn’t known was that their new home in Greece would be an isolated camp, away from easy job access, where knife fights sometimes broke out at night. Once or twice the family had to relocate their tent outside the gates for safety.
The children could attend school, but only in the afternoon, after the Greek kids had left, in foreigners-only classrooms that grouped together many ages and languages.
Many of those in the pipeline to go home, including the Mahmoods, had arrived in Europe illegally and struggled without documents.
It’s vexing for the migrants and refugees and for a government that said it wants to separate those fearing for the lives from those who want work and a better life but aren’t as much at risk, with 240,000 applying for asylum in Greece, which said it can’t absorb those numbers and the cost of providing benefits, schooling, and health care as it tries to come out of its own crisis.
In the island camps and detention centers, IOM lets those held there know about the program that would let them go back even as many had risked their lives crossing in rickety craft and rubber dinghies across the Aegean from Turkey to Greek islands where they are in limbo.
It is at those camps, and at other, better-equipped facilities for migrants on the Greek mainland, where the IOM tries to spread the word about the possibility of going home.
“When I go back to Iran, I don’t know if I’ll be fired or go to prison,” said Habib Mahour, 42, a ponytailed construction worker. “But I know I can’t get papers here. I prefer to face whatever may come. We are very tired here in Greece.”