A visit to Piraeus puts the argument about refugees in true context

The EU should be capable of managing the economic challenge of helping people who want to live without fear

Refugees and migrants walk after disembarking from the passenger ferry Blue Star 1 at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Greece,  March 8,  2016. REUTERS/Michalis Karagiannis

Refugees and migrants walk after disembarking from the passenger ferry Blue Star 1 at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Greece, March 8, 2016. REUTERS/Michalis Karagiannis

 

Greece is on its knees. If that suggests it is metaphorically praying for economic deliverance then it can hardly be optimistic its prayers are being heard.

Municipal Athens, has a population of 700,000 but recently another 7,000 took up residence – refugees living in tents on the quays of its port, Piraeus.

It is rare for the drama of displaced people to be set in a cockpit of economic activity in the developed world but it is in Piraeus that the argument about the rights of refugees versus the economic and security concerns of an increasingly divided Europe comes into focus.

Mohamed, a shop keeper and his young wife wanted to stay in their native Palmyra despite their dislike of the regime. Isis killed his sister.

It was too dangerous even in the quiet, respectable area where they planned to raise their family.

Now they live in a tiny tent at the rear of a disused warehouse on Athens’ port, their first child due soon.

Abdul is 33 and from Homs. An engineer, he was arrested after a protest march and fled with his wife and young son. Like many he chose to leave them in Turkey continuing the journey alone in the hope of sending for them later.

Ibrahim (15) became separated from his parents last year and is one of many minors in the camps. Despite the fact that his papers are in order and that his parents – teachers from Aleppo – and siblings are in Germany, he has become lost within a crisis that is, at the coalface, being managed by no one.

Piraeus is vast, the busiest passenger port in Europe, employs 3,000 with annual revenues approaching €24 billion.

Greece can ill afford to have the stability of such a valuable asset undermined by hosting part of Europe’s humanitarian crisis. Yet, over a four kilometre stretch, thousands of tents and makeshift homes of tarpaulin, it has become home to thousands fleeing Syria.

Their fate has been used by political groups on all sides. The right are using the refugee’s presence to spread fear, racism and Islamophobia.

The more extreme their position the greater the right-wing junkie’s need to find a vein of hatred based on suppressing the truth. They shut down narratives that do not support the image of refugees as a rabble intent on bringing a doctrine of hatred to Europe.

Hundreds of volunteers

Their needs are being met by hundreds of volunteers whose presence undermines any idea that the people of Europe are not ready to accommodate them. The volunteers are young and not so young. They are from everywhere.

Few are interested in political machinations, other than to hope those with power would deliver lasting solutions driven by humanitarianism rather than pragmatism

70-year-old Dan from New Mexico came because he felt “shame” over US interventions. Nick, a former British serviceman, was just focused with his 16-year-old daughter and her friend on providing care and attention to the refugees.

Cristina, a Belgian living in Athens, spent every day – including that of the attack on Brussels airport – providing for the refugees.

Norwegian doctors worked tirelessly with Greek colleagues in makeshift clinics. Most Greeks empathise with the plight of the refugees.

While its right-wing movement, Golden Dawn, has become more menacing, the volunteer effort is dominated by Greeks displaying great forbearance at a time of hardship.

Volunteers see themselves in the refugees; brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents who want only peace and fulfilment.

The refugees are fleeing conflict. They’re weary of it. They despise equally the regime and Isis and never again want to experience organised, institutionalised hatred.

Their cities and towns lie devastated, reduced to rubble on its account. Its people have, in their millions, fled the brutality of the regime and the perversion of a rebellion infiltrated by Isis.

The Syrian people in Athens are like most Europeans – they want the best for themselves and their families. They are not fleeing war to make war. They are fleeing violence to find peace. These refugees are, in fact, the very people Europe needs to help counter the promulgation of any radicalism rooted in a distorted and maniacal view of the Koran.

It is prophetic that part of the humanitarian drama is being played out at a key European transport hub.

Those predisposed to undermine the rights of refugees claim their integration would predicate an economic collapse or something more apocalyptic. It should not be beyond the EU to manage the economic challenge. The world’s largest trading blocks must work together if the much vaunted “global economy” is not one that fails the most basic tenet of economic activity – to serve society’s needs

Amjad from Homs captures the dilemma, questioning whether it might not have been better to have perished in Syria than, nightly, to contort himself into a foetal position in a small tent with three others in the hope of sleep.

Rows of tents

There are no war mongers in these camps. Most are like Amjad, bright and alive to the challenge their presence poses.

Their life experience, the very reason they have chosen to take refuge, renders them less prone to support evil than those already in Europe intent on doing just that and whose activities the refugees deplore.

There is evidence of hope in the camps. The refugees want to live without fear. They want to work and pay their way. They want to rear their families.

Like the volunteers they have little or no interest in nationality, ethnicity or religion.

They want to live where difference is tolerated and where respect is earned. The evidence, port side Athens, is that those whose refuge we alone control, have an entitlement to our unconditional support. Fintan Drury is chief executive of Platinum One, a sports management business. He is a former RTÉ journalist and public relations adviser. He travelled to Athens in a personal capacity

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