“We did not invite you to Greece”

Security guards in Katsikas “Hospitality Centre” destroy community-built shops asylum seekers rely on to survive

Refugee Camp Katsikas
The old cheese shop, destroyed in 2019. Picture by Rob Blake, 2018
We decided to show pictures of shops destroyed in previous years. Current shop owners expressed concerns about repercussions and prefer to remain anonymous.

According to reports shared by the International Refugee Committee, roughly one third of the people living in Greek refugee camps have been suffering from hunger since the end of 2021. The monthly financial support (that has been under the control of the Greek right-wing government since September 2021) was not paid at all in the three last months of 2021. From January 2022 on, the allowance has been provided again, but cut by more than 50%. 

As of yesterday, 4 March 2022, 14 self-built shops in Katsikas refugee camp – referred to formally as ‘Katsikas Hospitality Centre’ – are being torn down by security guards of the camp in an action sanctioned by the camp management. The material used to build them is being burned. The small shops, which resemble kiosk structures, consisted of 5 supermarkets, 1 coffee shop, 4 bakeries (two of which were self-standing structures and two of which operated out of a residential container), 1 barber shop, 1 BBQ kebab shop, 1 electric repair shop, 1 bicycle repair shop. The actions followed a previous warning by camp management that all shops who were still standing by 7th of March would be destroyed. Why the destruction of the shops was carried out two days early is unclear. Shop owners who experienced the destruction of their structures and small businesses now struggle with the question what to do with their remaining stock, as they are forbidden to run kiosks out of their containers, too. The following article explains why this measure poses a substantial threat to asylum seekers right now.

 

Authorities react to asylum seekers with contempt

Residents of the camp reported that the Greek security guards took pictures and videos of each other while burning the wooden constructions. They also told the residents: “We didn’t invite you here” (an ironic statement, considering the fact that these security guards only have an income and employment within the Greek unemployment crisis because of the fact that there are refugees in the country). Residents of the camp reported a drastic increase in numbers of security guards since construction of the walls around the camp began. Guards are now regularly patrolling the perimeter of the camp and pose additional barriers to entry and exit of the camp for its residents and for non-residents alike. 

When residents of the camp approached the camp management to complain about the destruction of their shops and the lack of respect of the guards, the camp management’s answer echoed the security guards: “We did not invite you to Greece. The door is open for you to leave, if you have a problem.” This statement is not only a slap in the face of people within the asylum process, it is also factually incorrect: People within the asylum process are not allowed to cross the borders to other countries.

Several shop owners who were not affected by today’s fires were told to take down their shops before Monday 7 March.

 

Destruction of shops threatens people’s existence on more than one level

The shops not only provide small but essential incomes for the families of the shop owners in a time in which their monthly allowance was cut by 50% and more, it is also a lifeline for the residents of the Katsikas camp who shop there. Food and essentials in the camp shops are often priced significantly lower than in the shops in town and the surrounding area. Within the “economic structures” of the camp, it is not uncommon that individuals who cannot afford to pay are given items for free, with the understanding that they will pay the money to the shop-owner once they are able. Shops in the camp therefore not only provide more financially accessible essential goods to asylum seekers, but also a system which enables financially destitute individuals to survive in moments where they have no alternative recourse. 

Reaching shops in the city is an additional hurdle that not all can overcome. The free bus shuttle to the hospitals and the city centre has been discontinued. The city centre is, however, the only place where people have access to more economic supplies. With public transport costing 3 Euros a trip into the city and back, bridging the 7 kilometers that separate the camp from the city is challenging and impossible for many.  When asking the camp management to support residents trips with public transport financially, given that the local option to shop is no longer available, the camp management refused.

The shop owners were told that they could only continue their sales with a “vendors’ permit.” Given the financial implications of the procedure completing the application to receive these permits is not an accessible alternative. In a country that is infamous for its tax fraud and corruption, the level of hypocrisy is downright embarrassing. 

 

The current political narrative – asylum seekers neglected and not considered “real” refugees

This is not the first time the structures – built by people through their optimism, strength, resilience and willingness to defeat the odds and keep going – have been destroyed. Twice in the past 6 years, people’s shops and gardens had been taken apart. In a context in which people are forced to live in camps, in which walls are being built around them and in which their monthly financial support is discontinued or cut in half, these measures come nothing short of abuse. 

The measures against people’s attempt to survive and against their dignity are taken only days after the Greek Minister for Migration, Mitarakis made a statement referring to “real refugees” from the Ukraine, implying that the other refugees Greece is currently hosting are not real refugees to begin with. 

We not only condemn this narrative and the destruction of shop structures as such, but also the disgusting attitude and the xenophobia they represent. We condemn the humiliation and disrespect of people who came to Greece as refugees. We call on the European Union to address the hunger in Greek refugee camps and the reduction of monthly allowances, to request explanations regarding the whereabouts if the money that is rightfully the money of people within the asylum process, and to condemn and address the neglect thousands of people are currently experiencing in one of its member states. 

 

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