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Desperate Refugees Hide In Europe As Makeshift Camps Are Bulldozed

Afghan refugees in Greece
The French government says it will close a wasteland district of Calais known as "the Jungle" this week. It is an area where hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers -- many of them refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq -- have set up makeshift shelters while waiting for a chance to stow away on trucks and ferries bound for Britain.

The British government has been pressuring France to do more to stop illegal migrants from trying to enter the United Kingdom, which is considered an end destination for many migrants. Residents of Calais also have called for action against the camps, claiming that migrants there are responsible for a growing local crime rate.

France's immigration minister, Eric Besson, has suggested that illegal migrants could be put in detention centers and eventually sent back to their troubled countries. That warning has prompted many to leave their ramshackle shelters and go into hiding.

Judith Sunderland, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, says European governments should be helping to protect refugees from war-torn countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, she says, governments in countries like Italy and Greece seem more eager to prevent migrants from entering the European Union or obtaining asylum:

"The French government's intention to bulldoze the camps at Calais fits in with a broader mood of rejection of migrants and asylum seekers -- and a greater emphasis on preventing migrants and asylum seekers from arriving in Europe," Sutherland says.

Greece Overburdened

Simon Troller, a Human Rights Watch researcher on children's rights, tells RFE/RL she is concerned that France will send refugees back to Greece, where they have little chance of obtaining asylum or receiving legal protection.

"Most of these persons have initially crossed through Greece," Troller explains. "European law has a provision that the country you first entered in Europe -- whether or not you made an asylum application there -- is the one country responsible for you. So the big concern we have is that France will send a large number of these people back to Greece."

In practical terms, the European law means that migrants who enter the EU thru Greece are effectively banned from declaring asylum in any other EU country.

Troller describes Greece's asylum system as "completely dysfunctional," saying it gives refugees almost no chance of getting help under laws meant to protect them. She says Greece also does not have sufficient facilities for the protection of migrant children and families, the disabled or traumatized refugees. In some cases, Iraqi and Afghan children have been detained in Greek prison cells alongside criminals:

"The prospect of France sending people back to Greece is, in our view, unacceptable -- given the situation in Greece," Troller says. "And of course, the fact that Greece is in many ways exposed very directly to a large influx of [migrants], just putting the additional burden on Greece is not going to be helpful. So we would definitely ask France to refrain from sending any person back to Greece and to instead look at the protection needs of these persons in France and to process their [asylum] claims, if they have any."

Most aid workers and rights advocates warn that bulldozing the camps near Calais will only worsen the plight of the refugees by forcing them to go into hiding. Troller says the situation could replicate a crisis that occurred in Greece in July when authorities bulldozed a makeshift refugee camp near the port of Patras.

Afghans Refugees and Human Traffickers

Afghan refugee Mirza Mohammad has been hiding in Greece since his Patras camp was destroyed. He and hundreds of other Afghans had sheltered at Patras in the hope of eventually sneaking onto a truck and traveling on to Italy or other EU countries.

Facing poverty and growing insecurity at his home in Afghanistan's northern province of Kunduz, Mirza paid thousands of dollars to an organized criminal group last year that promised to take him thru Iran and Turkey to the European Union.

Like most Afghans who pay human smugglers to help them make the long and dangerous journey, Mirza tells RFE/RL that his dream of a better life in Europe ended as soon as he reached Greece.

"When I came to Europe and saw the situation with my own eyes, I realized how difficult it is to make money in this part of the world -- no matter how hard we work," he told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan. "There were difficulties on the journey to Europe. But Afghans also are treated very badly once they arrive here."

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan also has confirmed through interviews with dozens of other Afghan refugees in Greece that most have faced difficulties similar to those of Mirza. Some say they endured the nightmare of being smuggled from Afghanistan by human traffickers only to find a new nightmare awaiting them upon arrival in Greece.

They say the Greek system makes it difficult for them to apply for asylum. They also fear that system because most who have applied for asylum in Greece are rejected, detained and eventually deported. As a result, many try to sneak from Greece into EU countries as far away as Britain in the hope that their asylum requests will be treated more sympathetically.

Peter Schatzer, the representative for Mediterranean countries at the International Organization for Migration, says these Afghans have been traveling along "part of a chain" for human smugglers that starts in Afghanistan and Iran and brings people through Turkey to Greece.

"Then they try to go on from there to Italy by trying to hide in some trucks and get on the ferries," Schatzer says. "And then they try to go on from Italy to France -- to Calais, where you have another dramatic situation with hundreds of migrants hiding in the bushes and trying to get on another truck for another ferry into Britain."

Schatzer says there are lessons from the bulldozing of the Patras camp that French authorities should heed.

"In Greece, the situation has not become less dramatic just because the squatter camps where these people stayed have been demolished," he explains. "It's just that they are now all over the place hiding. And many of them are also at risk of being exploited -- particularly the young ones."

EU Reforms Needed

Micky Van Gerven, a medical doctor who witnessed the demolition of the Patras camp, agrees that Europe's refugee problem is not being solved by police actions which make migrants go into hiding.

Van Gerven directs a program for migrants, asylum seekers and refugees as part of the Nobel Prize-winning aid group Doctors Without Borders. She also had helped run a medical clinic at the Patras camp.

"The day before the demolition, the police authorities came to the camp and announced the demolition and gave everybody a chance to leave," Van Gerven told RFE/RL. "The group [of people] who didn't want to apply for asylum sort of disappeared. We know that they have spread out across Greece. Many of them went to Athens because they know people there. And there is a small group still in Patras living in the fields."

Greek authorities argue that European laws place an unfair burden on them for supporting refugees and asylum seekers. That's because Greece's location makes it the first EU country for many newly arriving Asian refugees.

The European Union has been working to reform its immigration rules with proposals to more equally share the refugee burden. A draft of a new policy is expected to be issued before an EU foreign ministers meeting scheduled for the end of October. But diplomats tell RFE/RL that there already is opposition to that draft in countries like Germany and Austria.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report from Prague and Greece