The number of asylum seekers and migrants deciding to set off for Europe has drastically declined. Two years ago, 1,049,400 people reached the European Union. In 2016, it lowered to 374,318. How does the way of asylum seekers look like today?
In April 2016, after signing the agreement between Turkey and the EU, the
so-called Balkan Route got closed. Yet, the migrants’ journey has not come to an end. Many asylum seekers have settled in camps where they are awaiting a decision: will they be able to go further, stay or will they have to go back?
For now, they’re suspended.
Asylum seekers and migrants crossing through Turkey reach the northern part of the island of Lesbos – between Molivos and Sikaminou Climb. In 2015, this section of the sea was crossed by over 876 thousand people. In 2016 – 182.5 thousand.
Although the numbers are dwindling, the stream of boats and pontons didn’t come to a halt. They are still flowing in.
On the bank, a wacher scrutinizes the view in search of them. He’s sitting on a folding chair, observing the horizon. When a boat appears, he informs the camp staff. They gather, coming from the nearby villages where they live. They’ll find the leader among the arriving group – usually the man most fluent in English – and tell incomers where they will be transported to.
Local volunteers bring them from the beach to the UNHCR transition camp dubbed “Stage 2”. They stay there from anything between a moment and a few hours. Water and food is given out, and if somebody needs it – medical care is provided.
The only inquiry made is about their nationality.
From Stage 2, asylum seekers and migrants are transported to the camp in Moria by bus. There, they go through the registration procedure and start the asylum application process.
In 2015, number of people reaching the land was so great that they had to walk the whole route to Moria. A map showed them how to reach the nearby Mytilene, where camps were, and still are, located.
The camp is located only a few kilometers from Mytilene, the island’s largest city, at the former military base. To this day the area formally remains a military facility.
It was here, in Mori, where the majority of asylum seekers and migrants would arrive in 2015. After their tough odyssey across the sea, they could count on some basic care.
No journalists are allowed in and hardly the volunteers come inside. Taking photos is forbidden. A group of 7 or 8 police officers is on standby. The tense atmosphere can be felt in Mori.
The lack of information and frustration combined lead to protests among the residents, sometimes even riots. “They won’t let the journalists in again! They don’t want to show what is happening here!” blurted one of the asylum seekers upon noticing the reporters. Another shouted that “he is waiting for a long time and wants to talk”.
Recent days brought about a fire and a hunger strike.
Despite restrictive regulations, asylum seekers are free to go outside the camp. A few makeshift cafes and restaurants has sprung around. Some offer coffee in barracks, others in tents.
This is where the procedure for being granted asylum or refugee status begins. The interview goes on for days. Then one has to wait for months for a response. Some of the applicants are transported to continental Greece, to another camp.
Others are staying and waiting.
The camp is located a few hundred meters from the airport in Mytilene, the beach and the main road are even closer. Despite the proximity of frequented locations, it seems that the place is hidden. Not unintentionally.
The distance from the gate to the buildings is over 200 meters. There are large tents which slightly resemble tennis court domes. It’s different from other camps – quieter and more pleasant. You won’t find barbed wires, but trees here. Children play all sorts of outdoor games. A treacherous feeling a summer camp is almost tangible all around. Until you notice life-jackets on the fence.
Most of the residents of Pikpa are women. This is a place for people whose journey was exceptionally tragic – they either have been badly injured or have fallen victims to crime and violence.
Men can be hardly seen here. Only two emerged, in bandages, with crutches.
This friendly atmosphere is intended to help with wound healing. Both physical and mental ones.
The camp is occupying a slot almost right in the center of Athens. Located on one of the side streets, it doesn’t attract the looks of busy locals or tourists. In the distance, the Acropolis is visible, towering over the capital of Greece. Such is the view for children playing on the court yard inside the camp.
Eleonas is an open camp. The residents can enter and leave it freely. Therefore, the adults are trying to find a job, and the children are
attending classes in the local schools, together with the young Greeks.
Eight people usually inhabit one social container. The one we got invited to is where a Syrian engineer lives.
There are bunk beds by the walls. On them – hanging clothes and blankets. On a small table sits a TV set with an Arabic channel on. Sweet tea is boiling. “We’d even like to stay in Greece, yet there are not enough jobs for the Greeks, so how can we make a living?” the host asks us.
He also shows us a few pictures on his phone: his children, whom he won’t embrace anytime soon. They are in Western Europe.
Islam is the predominant religion among the asylum seekers and migrants arriving in Europe, but not the only one. In one of the containers a small Christian temple was given its place.
That’s the only place for asylum seekers and migrants in Cyprus, located on a steep slope and surrounded by a high wall.
The camp is populated mainly by people who crossed the sea having left Lebanon and reached the southern part of the island, after they had reached the southern part of the island. Apart from the shelter, they may find a community center or a playground for children. But the headlines of Cypriot newspapers state that this place isn’t sufficiently well-managed.
Even the locals can hardly tell where the camp is, although it is a few kilometers from the roads they frequently attend.
People can only access the resort with a special permit. The asylum seekers need one to go outside.
More than 300 people live here.
The camp in Obrenovac is a military base. At the beginning of the year, a part of it was adopted for asylum seekers – walls were painted, hundreds of bunk beds appeared. They stand in narrow rows, seemingly glued together.
Volunteers, who have previously provided food for asylum seekers in the barracks in the city center, are coming to the camp. Nowadays, when these barracks got swept off the surface, only a handful of foreigners is still sticking around the area. Most were relocated to the camps.
Obranovac is a men’s camp. They occupy several buildings together, throughout the whole facility. One of them is inhabited by under-age asylum seekers, unaccompanied minors with no legal guardians.
The residents were given a community center – they can go there, talk, drink tea, or play pool. Because having nothing to do with your time is the worst.
They ask a worker, who’s passing by, for shoes. Theirs are too small, or they have worn down soles. Some shoes are due to be delivered in two days. “We are doing our best, but there are shortages from time to time,” the stopped camp employee admits helplessly.
Bathrooms are in poor condition. There’s too few of
them for so many people. On top of that, no one cares about regular repairs of clogged pipes or keeping things in order.
In March 2017, the Hungarian government introduced a new law that established special “transit zones”. Having built the wall at the border, it’s another deterrent for migrants and asylum seekers.
The wall has already been completed – high for nearly three meters, with barbed wire on top. From the Serb side, a kind of corridor leads to a small shed where a person can hand in the asylum application. Here, at the gateways, the procedure begins.
The Hungarian authorities maintain that the conditions in the camp are very good: the containers are supposedly air conditioned, toilets and running water are said to be available. Allegedly, there’s also TV inside – the only window to the world, as you can’t see much from behind the densely packed barbed wire.
Journalists are not allowed in. Volunteers and non-governmental organizations don’t have easy access, either.
Until the end of their respective legal processes, none of the asylum seekers can leave the camp. Verification lasts months at best, but predominantly – from one to two years.
In 2015, 177,135 people submitted their applications in Hungary. In the border camp today, there are several dozen residents.
Thousands of people remain in the Balkan camps. They are waiting. Some apply for asylum in countries where they’re currently staying and then try to start their lives anew. They set up restaurants, engage in NGOs’ activities or work in blue-collar jobs.
Others opt for an uncertain life beyond the camps, hoping to reach their desired destinations in Western Europe. Still others flee from the camps and return to the Route – lately less accessible, making it therefore more dangerous and expensive.
Text, photo, movies: Magda Chodownik, Jakub Górnicki
Design: Arek Sołdon
Development: Piotr Kliks
Special thanks to Anna Górnicki and Marcin Pławnicki.