Refuge cities The port of Piraeus and a disused airport are focal points for Athens’ difficulties in dealing with the ongoing refugee crisis. The city’s mayor admits it is paying heavily for flaws that should have been addressed long ago

Even now, two months and 20 days after her journey from Afghanistan began, Haliva Khaveri still thinks of Greece – the country across the sea, the coastline she had looked at longingly from Turkey – in terms of hope.

It’s what keeps the 17-year-old and her entire family planted in Piraeus, the port city six miles south of Athens. “We are staying here,” she says with conviction. “Me, my mother, my father, my three sisters, my brother – we are not moving. We are staying here, and then eventually we go to Germany or Holland.”

The Greek government has other ideas. In the countdown to Orthodox Easter on 1 May – and with it, the start of the tourist season – the race is on to clear the port of its makeshift refugee camp, which until recently numbered more than 5,000. Buses were dispatched, leaflets distributed, and young boys who had jumped into the sea placated as the authorities moved men, women and children from the port gate of E1 to another at E2.

“A lot of them don’t want to leave because they fear that if they do, they’ll be stuck in camps,” says Nikos Souras, a US-based academic overseeing volunteers who have stepped in to make up for the basic services Greece’s cash-strapped state is unable to provide. “But how can they possibly stay here? It’s getting hot. There are fears that disease will spread.”

Squalid, chaotic, overwhelmed: Piraeus is the first port of call for the thousands now trapped in the capital, on the frontline of Europe’s refugee crisis. Since the closure of Greece’s northern border and with it the Balkan migrant trail – a move that has resulted in more than 46,000 stranded on the Greek mainland – it has been emblematic of the country’s inability to cope with a situation few had envisaged. In passenger terminals never built to deal with a humanitarian crisis, facilities have been rudimentary, tensions high, and resources vastly overstretched.

Anger and frustration have been highlighted by brawls between Syrians and Afghans; clashes between supporters of the neo-fascist Golden Dawn and the anti-fascist left have added to the explosive mix.

Athens wants to clear the Piraeus port of its makeshift refugee camp before Orthodox Easter on 1 May.

Athens wants to clear the Piraeus port of its makeshift refugee camp before Orthodox Easter on 1 May. Photograph: Simela Pantzartzi/EPA

From the outset, Greece’s Syriza-led government has taken a soft approach to the crisis, deliberately refraining from using force to disperse refugees. In recent months it has established 31 temporary reception centres nationwide; six are in Athens. The newest – a set of pristine containers erected on land cleared by the army – lies west of Piraeus above the shipyards of Skaramagas. It was there this week that authorities were attempting to lure those camped out at gates E1 and E2.

Lefteris Papayiannakis, the straight-talking deputy mayor in charge of refugee and migrant affairs, is the first to admit that Athens has been ill-prepared. As the primary point of arrival for thousands of asylum seekers pouring in from the Greek islands ahead of Europe’s controversial 20 March deal with Turkey, the capital should have realised the crisis was coming.

“I don’t like to call this a crisis because crises happen suddenly,” Papayiannakis says. “We all knew that people had amassed on the border between Syria and Turkey, and we all knew they were fleeing war and wanted to move on. Greece wasn’t ready to manage it, it wasn’t ready at all.”

Refugee children at the new reception centre near the shipyards of Skaramagas, Athens.

Refugee children at the new reception centre near the shipyards of Skaramagas, Athens. Photograph: Simela Pantzartzi/EPA

In 2015, around 85% of the approximately 1 million men, women and children who streamed into Europe via Lesbos and other Aegean isles then travelled through Athens. Their arrival put an immense strain on the city’s municipalities in charge of water consumption, waste management and public cleanliness.

“The reality is we are being asked to do more with less,” says Papayiannakis, of the seven-year-long economic crisis that has plunged debt-stricken Greece into its deepest recession in modern times. “For example, we need specialised personnel to deal with refugees and right now all we have are 10 social workers for the entire city.”

At its peak last month, close to 14,000 refugees had amassed in Piraeus, posing serious challenges for public order and health. By mid-April, however, attention had turned increasingly to the capital’s erstwhile international airport in Elliniko. Once poised to become Europe’s biggest metropolitan park, the disused airport was transformed into an “official” shelter in March, when it became clear that countries further north had cut off access to Europe for good.

If there was a semblance of order to the chaos of Piraeus, there is none here: outside derelict buildings, children play barefoot around overflowing rubbish bins; officialdom comes in the form of a single police car, parked alongside a fence clad with clothes, while up a flight of stairs inside the departure terminal, roughly 2,000 men, women and children – almost double the centre’s capacity - sleep side by side.

Lack of heat or air-conditioning means it is cold at night and stifling during the day; sanitation amounts to five toilets for men and five for women, with showers installed earlier this month. A further 3,000 refugees are crammed into two former Olympic venues – the old hockey and baseball stadiums – at Elliniko, where conditions are said to be so poor that access for NGOs or the media is rare.

Children play on an old mobile staircase at the disused Ellinikon airport, now home to 2,000 refugees.

Children play on an old mobile staircase at the disused Ellinikon airport, now home to 2,000 refugees. Photograph: Michalis Karagiannis/Reuters

With hunger reputed to be on the rise, volunteers have openly voiced fears of offering services to people who are increasingly desperate. Last week, following the death of a 17-year-old Afghan girl in the camp, irate local mayors felt compelled to write a letter to prime minister Alexis Tsipras deploring the conditions as unacceptable and inhumane. Calling for immediate measures, the Athens Medical Association warned of a public health emergency.

“So far, Greece has been very lucky,” Papayiannakis noted before news of the Afhgan girl’s death broke. “There have been no serious incidents – but luck, you know, can run out.”

Despite record unemployment and poverty levels, Greeks have responded to the influx with compassion and solidarity. Many have brought food and clothes to public squares, harking back to their families’ own experience as refugees when thousands were forcibly expelled from the Anatolian heartland after Greece’s ill-fated attempt to invade Turkey in 1922.

For immigrants like Arif Rahman, a businessman who heads the Bangladeshi Chamber of Commerce, that reaction has been heartening – even if the government’s own response has been bungled and chaotic. A slender man who first came to Greece in the late 1980s, Rahman has all too often witnessed his adopted country’s tough immigration policies – not least its steadfast refusal to offer citizenship to the children of emigres.

“Now is the time for Greeks to show what civilisation and democracy means,” he says. “These people don’t want to stay here. We keep telling the government, as foreign community leaders, ‘Ask us for help, we know our people, we know what they need. Don’t let it get uglier than it already has.’”

Athens coastguards give directions to refugees being transported out of the port of Piraeus.

Athens coastguards give directions to refugees being transported out of the port of Piraeus. Photograph: Thanassis Stavrakis/AP

The prospect of stranded refugees moving on any time soon are slim. Even before the crisis, the country’s asylum service was underfunded and overstretched. AnEU relocation programme to resettle some 66,400 asylum seekers across the bloc has been a spectacular failure. As of 12 April, seven months after its initiation, only 615 had been transferred to other member states, according to Amnesty International.

In Victoria Square, Athens’ central plaza which, for a few intense weeks earlier this year, served as an informal camp for thousands of new arrivals, aid organisations say they have begun to detect a discernible shift on the part of refugees.

“People are realising they are not going to leave fast,” says Polis Pandelides, head officer of the Salvation Army, which runs a day-centre near the square. “They have begun moving into hostels, they are looking at ways of learning the language, they want to enrol their kids in school.”

Under a scheme sponsored by the United Nations Refugee Agency, up to 20,000 private apartments in the capital will also be offered as temporary accommodation. Recently, Athens mayor Yiorgos Kaminis announced that 200 were instantly available for around 3,000 refugees.

But Kaminis knows he is walking a fine line. Athens, he says, is paying heavily for flaws that should have been addressed long ago – starting with the country’s conscious effort to deter asylum seekers.

“This is a country in the midst of an economic, political and social crisis,” he admits during an interview in the capital’s neo-classical town hall. “The biggest challenge is to try to comply with basic rules and principles concerning refugees and asylum seekers, and at the same time keep the city functioning. We have paid a high price for not having the necessary knowledge and infrastructure.”

Against this backdrop, dark forces such as Golden Dawn – for many Europe’s most brutal far-right party – need do little. “Reality is working for it,” adds Kaminis, sighing slightly as he rolls up the sleeves of his perfectly pressed white shirt. “It is something no one could have foreseen.”