The approach to Pedion tou Areos, Athens’ largest metropolitan green space, is scattered with the detritus of the drug trade. Heroin addicts stagger like gentle zombies in and out of the shade of an imposing equestrian statue daubed with anarchist graffiti. The name of the park, the “Field of Ares”, seems well suited to its current condition.
Built to commemorate the heroes of Greece’s struggle for independence, it has become a dumping ground for the problems that have mushroomed amid its contemporary crises. Now it is home to desperate underage refugees selling themselves for sex and, in some cases, being pulled into the drug trade.
When Greece was a transit country for refugees and migrants on their way to Western Europe, the parlous state of sections of Athens was a purely national question. Now that the country is a holding pen for 57,000 refugees, places like Pedion tou Areos are becoming an international concern.
“For the last five years or more, the park became a place where we hide everything that we don’t want the world to see,” says Tassos Smetopoulos, a social worker whose volunteer team The Unseen are working with unaccompanied minors. “The state and the municipality didn’t want all these people on the street and in the tourist areas. They don’t want the dark side of Athens and the collapse of social services to be visible.”
The waiting list for Greece’s largest drug treatment program is up to five years long, he explains: “We have a huge number of drug users, and they don’t have any way out because the system for recovery doesn’t work, and it’s better to hide them inside the park than have them on the street.”
This is the new home for an increasing number of refugees. Some like Ali, a 17-year-old Afghan who has been sleeping rough in the park since the end of June and selling himself to older men, are losing hope and taking to drugs.
“The dealers control the park,” he explains, but they don’t interfere with the refugee boys, many of whom spend their earnings on the same heroin as the Greek drug users. More refugee boys are arriving every day, he says, some of them as young as 15.
Since the turn of the year, more than 60,000 refugee children have arrived in Greece, amounting to four out of 10 of all new arrivals. Since Greece stopped being just a staging post for refugees, the woefully small number of facilities to house vulnerable children has been overwhelmed. The National Center for Social Solidarity (EKKA) says there are 1,394 unaccompanied minors on the waiting list for shelter.
The lack of places has meant hundreds of children being held for weeks, if not months, in police cells. Word of this has spread to new arrivals who now do their best to avoid detection by authorities. There are no accurate figures for the number of children who are traveling alone.
“We know that unaccompanied minors coming to Greece are detained by police until they’re placed in a shelter,” says Eva Cossé, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. “So, many of the kids want to avoid detention and try to not get registered.”
The lack of places in secure shelters, mistrust of authorities, fear of the police and the need to earn more money than ever to complete their journey westwards, means hundreds of children are at risk.
“They’re trying to get to their final destination and they’re getting detained instead,” says Cossé. “These kids shouldn’t be in an old airport or in the open in [the port of] Piraeus. They should be in shelters. With E.U. funding, this shouldn’t be an issue anymore.”
In recent months the cost of escape from Greece has become prohibitive. Since Greece’s northern borders were closed and fences started to appear in the Balkans, the price of illegal passage has skyrocketed.
In nearby Victoria Square, which has long been the epicenter of migrant trafficking, the going rate is anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000, depending on the destination and mode of transport. The most expensive route is via refrigerated trucks bound for Italy, where the brave or desperate risk suffocation in a sealed container.
Many refugee children, like Ali, came into the orbit of Pedion tou Areos having left the makeshift camps at the old airport, Hellenikon, or the port of Piraeus, and come to Victoria to make contact with people-smugglers.
Ali has given up hope of finding a way out of Greece, but says that other boys are still trying to collect the money to leave: 10 euros ($11) at a time in the bushes of the park. Ali’s T-shirt, with its jaunty cartoon of a New York skyscraper, is caked with dirt from the earth where he sleeps. “I wanted to make progress, I wanted a future,” he says. “With the drugs… and what I’m doing [the prostitution], I’m not going anywhere. My mind is destroyed.”