176 – Field Trip to the Athens Asylum Center

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Dr. Sandie Morgan and Dave Stachowiak discuss Sandie’s recent visit to an asylum center in Athens, Greece. They shed light on the challenges for refugees to receive asylum and the continued hardships of integrating into a new culture. They also discuss how asylum seekers are causing challenges for the country itself.

Key Points

  • Greece’s geography, proximity, and of course being adjacent to the ocean makes it the country of destination for asylum seekers.
  • Greece is a country of 11 million people. About five million are of the age where they’re working and unemployment is about 30 percent. So you have an economically stretched country that is tasked with receiving hundreds and thousands of these refugees.
  • About 47 percent of refugees will receive asylum. And by asylum, that means they have a residency permit, protection rights, their kids can go to school, and they can work while they wait for the final decision.
  • 5 myths surrounding asylum are: the refugee crisis is over, we can easily separate refugees from economic migrants, telling human stories is enough to change people’s minds, the crisis is a threat to European values, and history is repeating and there’s nothing we can do about it.


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Dave: [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is episode number 176, Field Trip to the Athens Asylum Center.

Production Credits: [00:00:09] Produced by Innovate Learning, maximizing human potential.

Dave: [00:00:30] Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is David Stachowiak.

Sandie: [00:00:35] And my name is Sandie Morgan.

Dave: [00:00:37] And this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. On the last episode we talked about studying the issues in Athens, Greece and we explored some of the big pictures, goals, and outcomes that came out of Sandie’s recent trip there with the Global Center for Women and Justice team. And we talked about student involvement and so many of the takeaways that happened. On this episode, we’re going to zero in on a much more of a micro conversation, Sandie, on one particular piece and one particular experience of being in Greece during that time. And we’re going to really look at in some detail the asylum center that you visited.

Sandie: [00:01:27] I tell you when we arrived at this center and we saw the way the gate is positioned with the kind of metal guides like you were in line to go through security at the airport and it just whines and whines, back and forth. And knowing that refugees show up there at 6 o’clock in the morning waiting for the office to open at 8:00 a.m. trying to get in first. And they have their whole family with the mom, dad, three or four kids and they’re waiting there to get inside. And to begin to understand what that means. And you know, you think about asylum, finding a safe place that you can legally stay. That’s the goal. And so many of the pictures that are emblazoned on our minds from the news reports of boats capsizing and people being pulled out of the water to safety. That’s just the beginning because now they have to figure out how to build a new life, and they need to build it in a safe place.

Dave: [00:02:45] I have so many things I’m curious about the experience and the experience of the center, Sandie. I’m curious first, and I know there’s not an easy answer to this question, but who are the refugees who show up in this line. Where do they come from? What’s their story to the extent that you know?

Sandie: [00:03:03] Well, in that part of the world, the majority of the refugees that we met and encountered were from conflict areas in Syria. Some were escaping for some of the other issues that are related to how you seek asylum for religious persecution. We met asylum seekers from Iran, from northern Iraq Kurdish areas, from Syria, and from Turkey, but they all had the same goal in mind. We want to be in a place where we are safe and our children have a future.

Dave: [00:03:43] So a lot of what we’ve been hearing on the news in the last few years are the conflicts in the Middle East and of course the Syria conflict. You were front and center of the people who have now emerged from that and showed up in Greece seeking that protection.

Sandie: [00:04:02] And here’s the thing that makes Greece a little unique. What I learned from our NGO partners that we were working with, is that refugees that made it further west in Europe are being sent back to their country of entry to the EU, because they didn’t qualify for asylum or for residence. The numbers were cut off in countries like Germany and Norway and so on. And so, the country they entered in with a boat falling apart, was Greece. And so, they’re coming back and now they’re starting the process again there. So even though people say well the crisis is over, right? Greece is a country of 11 million people. About five million are of the age where they’re working and unemployment is about 30 percent.

Dave: [00:05:06] Wow.

Sandie: [00:05:07] So you have an economically stretched country that just is emerging from austerity measures that we also followed and they are the ones tasked with receiving hundreds and thousands of these refugees. And you know, once you come in, they took us in just like we were refugees, they brought us in. And once you get through the front gate, then you’re in this big holding area. We stopped and we took some pictures, and you start thinking about why you’re here. And there’s a little area for children to play, and there’s a little center where you can draw pictures. And I’m looking at the pictures, and I’m going to give it to Andrew and see if he can’t post it somehow on our page. But one 14-year-old girl and this was the story told to me, drew this picture. It was very simple black and white, and it was one arm clasping another arm. So, my hand around your elbow, and your hand around my elbow. But I can’t see you because you’re underwater, but I’m pulling you up. And so, when you’re at the border in one of these landlocked countries and you close the door, they can’t get in, but they’re still standing on dry land. In Greece, what are you going to do, throw them back into the sea? So, this conundrum of responsibility and the disproportion in resources was just so highlighted in looking at those pictures and seeing these kids and how they play. And lots of the kids drew pictures of the water and it was just a reality check for us.

Dave: [00:07:12] Is it, speaking of the water, is it Greece’s geography, and proximity, and of course being adjacent to the ocean that makes it the country of destination? Or are there are other factors too?

Sandie: [00:07:26] You know it is the easy access to the water. When I was there last year one of the newest refugees to come into Bridges was a young man who had swum from the border of Turkey to an island that was like 70 miles, but he swam to get there. And you can’t do that unless you have a lot of islands and this kind of thing. So that does make it the proximity, and the water is a very porous border, obviously. But it is also a country that has a lot of things in common with these other countries. The culture is very Mediterranean, and the weather, the food is regionally across the board very similar. So, it’s not hard to set up housekeeping, and have rice and olives and olive oil, and all those kinds of things and tea. All of those things are not a problem.

Dave: [00:08:27] And forgive me for asking, it’s completely a naive question, why not a country like Turkey and some of the other countries that you know are even closer in the area?

Sandie: [00:08:36] Well there are refugees in those countries. And I think that in a previous podcast I’ll look for it. When I came back from Istanbul the researchers there had already begun to identify how many children of refugee families, especially adolescent kids, were missing and presumed trafficked. And that was one of the issues that we saw over and over again here too because smugglers don’t even seem to care very much about being found out they’re recruiting through social media. I can get you where you want to go, and it’s all about the profit. And the fraud aspect, you know people are willing to take risks when they’re really desperate. And they lose their money, and they fall into really dangerous circumstances.

Dave: [00:09:29] Which is of course why we’re talking about this and when you were there, which is the connection, for those who may not be putting the pieces together on this, that so much of this relates to human trafficking. Because with human trafficking so much is driven by the economics on all sides, and people who are in a situation like this in refugee status are very susceptible to influence and making decisions that they may not otherwise make. You and I would make some of those decisions if we were in that situation.

Sandie: [00:10:05] So we often as trainers and observers, we say well if you train the frontline people to identify victims of trafficking we’ll be able to intercept them when they’re still on the islands, we’ll be able to do this. And I spoke to one of the members of the UN Special Rapporteurs office and she said, you know we’ve made visits down to the islands and we’re starting to understand, we have to do self-care for the people who have been doing these rescues over and over again. The people that are receiving the desperate people. And she said my favorite quote was from a Coast Guard who said, “if my mother was in the water I wouldn’t recognize her. I just have to get the people out of the water. And then get the next person out of the water.” And that level of exhaustion and they keep seeing more and more, that kind of self-care has to become part of the solution. Because the people that are doing this in a small country, like Greece with limited resources, are worn out. And to that point, I really want to shout out to Miss  Eleni Petraki, who invited us and arranged for our whole class to tour the facility and meet so many of her colleagues who are doing this in very difficult circumstances. And when we met one of the first case managers that started at the very beginning. His name is Tasos, he has a Ph.D. I wish I could pronounce his last name. But he told us we didn’t really have “oh here’s what you do”. We had to figure it out as we went along. We knew we had to investigate. We had to get good translations. We couldn’t just guess what they were saying. There are so many pieces to doing an asylum investigation, which one of the issues is people who might be seeking asylum are different than people seeking economic migrant status. And there is a different process, it costs to apply for migration status, but asylum is free. It’s a human rights issue. And so, you can imagine that people might apply for asylum that don’t actually qualify. So, they have to do that investigation, and when they’re doing that they listen to stories that will break your heart. They listen to families who have lost one or two of their children, have been separated from their spouse. One spouse is in Turkey, one spouse is in Greece. How do we get them back together? And those are really difficult stories to listen to. And so Tasos, he said I wrote a letter and said we need some help here. And so now they do have a couple of psychologists doing self-care counseling for about 300 case managers. So, you can imagine what that means. And Greece is one country with this impacted by this refugee crisis and the asylum process. But if you look at it a little country like Lebanon, it’s like the size of a big county in California, and they have over a million refugees. So, when we look at it from our comfortable place here in California, we don’t really see some of the major challenges that are being faced on the ground there.

Dave: [00:14:15] For those who show up in the line at the asylum center in Athens, how many will ultimately receive asylum?

Sandie: [00:14:23] We asked that question that day. And we were told that about 47 percent will receive asylum. And by asylum, that means they have a residency permit. But here’s the part that was really new for me to begin to understand. Once they get into the process of seeking asylum, they have some protection rights that make it so that they can live there, their kids can go to school, and they can work while they wait for the investigation, while they wait for the final decision.

Dave: [00:15:03] So no wonder so many are going down that path. I hear that number 47. On one level that seems like wow that’s a lot, on another level, what happens to the other 50 percent? Do you know?

Sandie: [00:15:18] Well it depends on what their circumstances are, some are able to reapply and appeal. Others realize OK I am going to have to go through the immigration process. So, it would it would depend. But for some it means they become much more vulnerable to being trafficked because they will now take the risk to go with a smuggler that may be trafficking them.

Dave: [00:15:46] Since they have no other options essentially. The other option would be to go back. Can they even get back though? I mean, it’s so complicated.

Sandie: [00:15:54] It is and it depends what their country of origin was as to how assessable it is to get back. But you know the whole issue of asylum is based on the Geneva Convention of 1951, relating to the status of refugees. And it is based on the fact that someone has left their country, fled, and cannot return to it because of a well-founded fear. And that’s what we have to investigate, that he or she will be persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. And they have to meet one of those requirements, and the part that is in the text on their Greek webpage is this is not a philanthropic act. It is an obligation of our country pursuant to the international conventions and Greek law. Greek law, so they take their responsibility very seriously and they do their very best. We watched how kind and compassionate they were. And they’ve developed you know areas for children. One of the unique special circumstances is when kids get separated, usually they’re teenagers, from their families. So, creating special resources for unaccompanied minors that explained to them. And now what do you call it, it’s not a comic book it’s a graphic artist, they’ve actually developed that and it’s in like nine different languages. And they hand that out to you so that they know what their rights are and that they can apply for asylum on their own. And there’s a special process for them. I think one of the things that was the most surprising to me, because I’ve never studied asylum law I don’t know anything, but to know that these kids had the right to go to school. From the moment they got their first little piece of paper that says my parents have applied. The whole family is now legally in the country and they have that paper and they celebrated. I watched families, yes, we’ve got it now. But integration is not that easy, because the kids don’t speak Greek. Mom and Dad don’t speak Greek. But you’re going to go to a Greek school. So, then a lot of the NGOs are doing Greek lessons. So, you begin to really change what do we need to do. So last week we were packing nappies and this week we’re teaching grade school Greek.

Dave: [00:18:51] Wow. I mean I think about the desperation, Sandie, and that excitement of getting that slip of paper all to really just enter into a whole new level of challenge. Even once you get the asylum status, there’s a very difficult path ahead for a long time. Learning a new language, integrating into a culture, having left almost certainly extended family members behind and been separated.

Sandie: [00:19:17] And getting your education recognized in Europe, that’s a huge process. And so now you’re going to qualify to be a bus driver instead of an engineer? How do you become a teacher, when there’s no school in the language you teach in?

Dave: [00:19:38] Certainly not all, but some of the refugees coming in are very highly educated, and now because of circumstance in their country were displaced.

Sandie: [00:19:48] Exactly. And I when I was at the NGO training day that we talked about in the last episode, one of the things that the NGOs were talking about is we need dentists. And so, the day before we left, I met a young man who had just arrived, an asylum seeker. And he’s a dentist and so I started asking, so how do we find a way to get his dental degree and his license recognized in Greece so that he can serve other refugees? And that’s part of the process of reintegration and building these new little communities so that they actually can serve each other. One of the things that they pass out to the refugees is a list of their rights and obligations. And it’s so important for them to begin to understand that they cannot be deported when they’re in the process of having their application examined. And so, they have some security. And this becomes important because if someone tells you that if you don’t go with me then this is what’s going to happen to me. They’re really easy and vulnerable to being taken advantage of. So, making sure that they understand their rights is a big piece of keeping asylum seekers from being recruited and exploited by traffickers. They also are able to work under Greek law. And I found that really interesting, because when I found out they were looking for jobs I thought oh they’re looking for black market jobs. No, they’re looking for legal jobs and they find jobs doing pretty much menial labor, washing dishes, serving tables, doing all kinds of hotel work, and agricultural work, those kinds of things. But those are issues that can easily evolve into some kind of exploitation. And they had a big case last year in the strawberry fields that was a labor trafficking case. And so that’s why it’s really important for asylum seekers to learn what their rights are and that they can work according to Greek law.

Dave: [00:22:18] I noticed one of the things that you have mentioned in your notes here is some of the myths that are prevalent still. Can you share those with us? Because I think that’s something important, I mean this is new information for me too.

Sandie: [00:22:33] Yes. And in fact, there’s five myths that were just kind of recently part of a discussion in the media in Greece. And I think the first myth that our students come back to America with, is the myth that the crisis is over and the refugee crisis is over. And it isn’t over, because we see people living in really substandard housing. They’re still living in crowded camps. They’re still living separated from their families. They’re still not in a place where their kids can go to school. They’re living without finding a job where unemployment. Sure, so the law says you can get a job, but unemployment’s 30 percent. So, this doesn’t bode well for becoming a self-sustaining family. So, the crisis isn’t over. The second myth is that we can easily separate refugees from economic migrants. And that’s a really big job, that’s why it takes so long. It can take several months for an asylum seeker to get their paperwork and their investigation completed because they don’t want Greece to become an asylum paper mill. They want to have well documented, legal asylum cases. And so, people who might abuse the situation to get asylum, when they really are just here to find a new job because they wanted a better job than what they had. Which that’s a good reason to become a migrant. But it’s not the same kind of dire circumstances as an asylum seeker. That’s really difficult to determine. The third myth is telling human stories is enough to change people’s minds. And I’ve actually found that pretty true myself, Dave. I’ve told a few stories and people say yeah that’s really sad. But, and of course when you say “but” it’s like everything else I said doesn’t matter now, the reality is you know they’re coming in and taking jobs from other people. And I’m talking about, this is what people are saying in some of the other countries, where they’ve closed the doors there in the EU for workers. And recently just this last week, a ship that picks up migrants, the boats that have capsized or are at danger of capsizing, was denied the ability to dock in Italy. I don’t know where they’re going to go. So, the idea that just knowing that this is a horrible story, and the boats are capsizing, and children might die, that’s not enough to change people’s minds. The fourth myth is that the crisis is a threat to European values. And that’s probably a little bit along some of the religious and traditional differences culturally with the majority of the refugees and the majority of the home country. But my personal experience is I watched families and I watched them take care of their kids, and keep their kids safe, and provide for their kids, and educate their kids. And this sense of I’m building something for my family. And I don’t know if it was who I was working with, our partners. But the majority of the people that we worked with had families and they were there because they wanted something better for their children. I think that’s a pretty common value. And then that fifth myth is history is repeating and there’s nothing we can do about it. And you know that just makes me mad because we’re supposed to learn from history, right? Not repeat it. And there is something we can always do.

Dave: [00:26:51] Sandie, we were talking today as we were preparing for our conversation that we do by the nature of the focus of this podcast, we do uncover difficult situations a lot in these conversations. And of course, our hope is that we both of course, and our partners, and you who listen to the show will walk away with under greater understanding so that we can be partners in making progress in ending human trafficking. And you know it is very much about studying the issues first, so we can ultimately be a voice, and make a difference. And if we understand more of what’s going on in the world, I know I’ve learned a bunch just in the last 20 minutes, we will be in a better position to be helpful when the time comes. As we talked about in the last episode, even maybe perhaps asking the right questions when we are in the situations we find ourselves in in this community. And I’m just so grateful for your work and you taking so much care and put so much effort into making these strides to build partnerships around the world.

Sandie: [00:28:04] Well we’re so well embraced and we’re so grateful to our Greek partners at the asylum center in Athens, and to Eleni Petraki and all of her team for allowing us to experience firsthand what it’s like to be in that center. And to really grow our appreciation for the huge undertaking that is done with so much compassion and so much commitment.

Dave: [00:28:36] As we’re talking, Sandie, I’m thinking you know we’re learning so much as we go and as we’re learning and we’re studying these issues, we also are building knowledge about things that we know to be true. And as you pointed out a moment ago, history doesn’t need to repeat itself. Part of the reason we spend this time and of course the work of the Global Center for Women and Justice is so much focused on studying the issues, so we can be a voice, and ultimately make a difference. And I am making that call to you as well, if you are of that mindset as well and don’t want history to just necessarily repeat itself because that’s the way it’s been before. Here’s a starting point for you, is to go on to the endinghumantrafficking.org website. And if you go there you will see a place where you can download a copy of Sandie’s book, the five things you must know, A Quick Start Guide to Ending Human Trafficking. It is not the end all be all of course, none of our work is. It is however a starting point. And if you are just starting on this journey along with us and are wanting to begin to lay the foundation, so you can effect change in a positive way in your community and the partnerships you’re influencing. I hope you’ll take a moment to grab that, just go over to endinghumantrafficking.org. You can get instant access to it by visiting that page there, and of course so much else there, Sandie. All of our podcasts that we’ve aired over the last seven almost eight years now, and tons of other resources including the show notes for this episode. We’ll be putting links to the things we’ve mentioned as well. In addition, while you’re online, if you haven’t done this before if you’ve been listening to the podcast for a while, we’d be so grateful if you took a moment to leave a rating or review especially if you’re utilizing the Apple platform either on the podcasts app or online with iTunes. Take a moment to leave a rating review for the show that’s a huge help to us and our entire community it helps more people to discover the show who like you have a care and concern for human trafficking and want to do something more to build our community. Thank you in advance, if you take a moment to do that. Sandie, we’ll be back in two weeks with our next episode. Thank you for everything you’ve done to bring this conversation to us today.

Sandie: [00:30:55] It’s great to be here.

Dave: [00:30:57] We’ll see you all in two weeks. Take care.

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