Overnight at the Port Piraeus Refugee Camp


The tent city at the harbour of Piraeus, Greece, is an unofficial refugee camp, constantly under threat of evacuation, where over 2,000 refugees from Syria and Afghanistan have been residing, many of them without papers, for several months. A team of dedicated — and overtaxed — volunteers from a few small NGOs, as well as some “free agents,” manage the residents’ health, safety, hygiene, and even recreation. Because they are an unofficial camp, they get little more than emergency supplies from the UN refugee agency. Most of what’s done at the camp is an improvisation and a cooperation between the volunteers and the residents. There’s almost always a feeling of conflict in the air, but also of humor. (Some names of people have been changed.)

It’s the morning after the night I spent at the port. Samrend is standing over me smoking with his foot resting on the concrete barrier I’m sitting on. His tan is deep, his hair sandy brown, his golden Aviator shades reflecting my own skinny figure back at me. He looks like a Kurdish Abercrombie model who’s been to war. In fact, he has been to war. He fought ISIS with the Iraqi military last year.

Everyone else is hiding in the shade except us two.

“We have a lot volunteers. A lot good. One crazy.” He starts laughing at his joke and decides to repeat it. “One crazy. You know who.”

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The Camp that Cannot Last

In which I meet a young Greek who lost his job, miss my bus stop, ask five people ‘where the refugees stay’, wander around the harbour with no water, pass by a sinking passenger ship, find an unofficial camp staffed by friendly but cantankerous volunteers from all over the world, meet a young Kurdish man who fought ISIS in Iraq, and make 600 bean wraps on the roof of a restaurant.


It didn’t take me a long time to find what I was looking for. I had talked to a few people, and someone suggested that if I wanted meet refugees and the people who are helping them, then I should head to Port Piraeus, which for many asylum-seekers is the first point of entry onto the European mainland. And it’s where many stay. At least for a while. Over the last year, unofficial shelters have been established here in empty shipping warehouses. And as the Greek government begins to clear these all-volunteer, squat-like tent cities — think Idomeni — the newcomers from Syria and Afghanistan are slowly relenting to move into the sterile military refugee camps.

The only info I had was the name of the port, so I looked around for a bus stop near my hostel and it happened to go in that direction. A guy waiting at the stop asked me if I could spare a ticket and I could. His name was Mike, about thirty, dark hair, over-sunned skin. Was he going to Piraeus? No, he was going to his job at a factory. He had been an engineer, lost his job around 2012, got another but quit after six months when he realized his paycheck would never come. Now he works in a factory. On an industrial stretch of road, he got off the bus and told me I could use his name, but I couldn’t mention what he made at the factory. It’s a pity because it was poetic.

I missed my stop by a lot. None of the signs outside of the city of Athens are written in the Latin alphabet. But by asking over and over where the refugee camp was, I finally found my way to the harbour.

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Last month, a bit spontaneously, I bought an EasyJet ticket from Berlin to Athens for around 30 euros. In 2014, a student from Damascus named Ghaith paid 6,800 euros to cross ten borders and arrive in Sweden.

It should be obvious to anyone aware of the so-called refugee crisis in Europe that borders are sieves that control the flow of people based on two things: ethnicity and income. If you have enough money, you can pay your indemnities and move where you please. If you share a blood heritage with the majority population of a wealthy country, you get filed into the shorter line at airports, you get the simplified paperwork, you are greeted by the hotelier and ignored by the police.

One of the sharpest ironies is that when you have a lot of money, unlike Ghaith, you don’t pay as much to travel. You don’t have to buy a fake passport or open your wallet to a blackmarket taxi driver or wire money to a smuggler to take you across the Mediterranean.

Of course there are exceptions to the sieve. But the exceptions are like paint flecks that fall outside of the line — you can still see the shape of the thing.

This blog, dispatching from Athens and points northward, is (first of all) my attempt to see the places and people marked by the passage in a single year of over a million souls out of North Africa and the Near East and into Europe. From June 14 through the end of the month, I will be traveling from Athens up the “Balkan Route” and writing about it.

But Left of North will also approach migration as a challenge to the current structure of the world, and it will look at migration facilitation¬† — whether you want to call it human smuggling or humanitarian aid — as a kind of politics. And it’s a politics that has begun to define the left and the right in Europe.

Helping undocumented migrants is illegal, and yet people do it. They give up spare rooms for stopovers, purchase bus tickets, line up jobs, and drive people northward. Some do it for money, some out of pity, some out of ideology. It’s this last group that this blog is most interested in. Is there a cohesive movement of leftist migration facilitators? Is it a fundamental part of a progressive vision of Europe?

Those sound like good questions to start with.