This story was produced through a partnership between Slate and the Global Migration Program at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
PATRAS, Greece—Ali Muhammed has been camped out at the abandoned wood factory for nearly three weeks. Tonight, on a mild evening in early May, he will spend many hours hidden in the shifting shadows along the walls that surround the port of Patras. He is waiting for the ships to pull into harbor, where they will be loaded with trucks and containers heading for Italy. He is scouting out the best place to conceal himself.
Muhammed is one of hundreds of refugees and migrants who have come to Patras, one of Greece’s oldest and largest ports, in an attempt to reach wealthier countries in northern and central Europe. He is 27, from Pakistan, and has a calm and kind way about him. He speaks Urdu and Farsi, and his English is impeccable. He often acts as a translator for the rest of the young men at the factory. But because he is the only Ismaili Shiite in a group of mostly Sunni Afghans, he says he does not always feel safe.
From March through June of this year, I made frequent visits to the area around the Patras port, which has been witness to the aftermath of war and economic devastation in countries such as Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Each week, hundreds of desperate men and boys from these countries scale the port’s cement and iron security walls in search of safety and a better life.
In between attempts to board ships illegally, refugees camp in makeshift tents under collapsing roofs and on top of piles of decaying trash in the wood factory, which is directly opposite the port’s entrance across a four-lane highway. There are no toilets or showering facilities and only a few blankets to go around for keeping warm at night.
If Muhammed is lucky, tonight he will find a safe place to hide, where the port police won’t find him when they do their routine searches of all the vehicles before they are loaded onto the boats. He will then wait in his position for hours until the boats are ready to leave. To reach Italy could take another 48 hours.
This is the “game,” as the young men and boys at the abandoned wood factory call it. The stakes are high, and the odds of making it onto a ship undetected are low. If caught by the port police, the refugees say they are beaten with batons, kicked, punched. If they manage to escape the grasp of the police who patrol the port on motorcycles, they still risk other injury. Many have fallen from the walls they must climb. Others have been struck by passing cars.
“Yesterday, when the police were catching a boy, he was running for safety, but he had an accident, and it was very bloody,” 22-year-old Hameed Khan from Afghanistan wrote to me via private Facebook message in April. The boy was from Pakistan; he was severely injured and hospitalized.
Several days later, I receive another Facebook message from Khan telling me that he has reached Italy unharmed, though only after spending 40 hours inside a shipping container without food or water.
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Violence is visible on most of these young men. They limp around the factory, displaying broken arms and hands, cuts, and bruises from their run-ins with the police night after night. And it’s not only the port police who pose a threat to the refugees. Angry truck drivers, who could themselves be arrested if refugees are found hiding underneath their vehicles, often beat those whom they catch.
Nicos Afaloniatis, a lawyer and member of the Motion for the Defense of Refugees’ and Immigrants’ Rights in Patras, confirmed that beatings are carried out by port police officers, private security officers, and truck drivers. “The port police officially deny the allegations, but everybody knows that this is the case,” he said.
Hiding underneath trucks and inside large shipping containers is also hazardous, and the refugees will attempt to hide nearly anywhere: between the wheels, wedged into dark corners, and sometimes even when the trucks are turned on. Some refugees also try to conceal themselves in airtight containers, which leads to suffocation during the 48-hour-long journey.
Because most of these refugees and migrants don’t know the safe places to hide, the use of smugglers to guide them to “safety” has sharply increased, at a cost per migrant of some 2,500 euros (about $2,800). According to Ali Muhammed, virtually everyone has his own smuggler who arrives at the port at sundown every night. Two young refugees from Afghanistan told me that not using smugglers is dangerous for two reasons: You won’t know where to hide, and smugglers might try to intimidate you into leaving the port before you have a chance to try making it onto a ship.
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Days and nights at the factory are all the same. They begin with Afghan tea and, on a good day, scrambled eggs with chopped tomato, made in a mangled black pan over a makeshift fire. After breakfast, small preparations are made for the day’s attempt to “play the game.” Once everyone has organized their few belongings, they will sit for several hours in the sun playing cards, wrestling, or caring for the several street puppies they have acquired along the way.
Around 1 o’clock in the afternoon, when the ships begin to pull into port for the first scheduled stop, the movement in the factory begins to pick up. Because they need to travel light, a single water bottle is usually all the migrants take with them. The abandoned buildings that occupy the factory lot where tents are pitched for the night fall silent. Discarded sweatshirts and pants remain draped over railings and broken chairs where they have been placed to dry. Everyone who is able to walk has left for the port.
Every evening, as the sun begins to set and the first round of ships leaves the port, the refugees start streaming back across the highway and into the factory, downtrodden, covered in black soot from head to toe. Some of them cradle freshly broken arms or begin wrapping white gauze around new gashes on their hands and ankles. They huddle together to discuss that night’s attempt to play the game and count which of them is missing. Everyone hopes that those who haven’t returned made it successfully onto the ships, that they haven’t been arrested and jailed.
I keep in touch with a few of those who make it—Khan and a handful of other Afghans, all in their late teens or early 20s. They send me messages letting me know they made it to Milan, Geneva, Paris. They send photos of themselves standing in front of iconic landmarks with big smiles on their faces. But some days later, when the excitement wears off and sleeping on park benches exposed to the elements begins to break their spirits, their messages start to become desperate.
“Do you know anyone in Milan?” Khan asks me in one message. “Look,” he writes about the picture he sends next. “Rainy night and look where we are staying.” Again he has found shelter in an abandoned building, but the weather in Italy is much colder than it was in Greece. Others are sleeping on the street or in train stations. I try to direct them to organizations that can help.
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Ali Muhammed left his 21-year-old wife, Dunya Ali, back in Athens, because the factory is occupied only by men and boys. She lives in a small apartment provided to them by PRAKSIS, an independent NGO. The couple first arrived in Greece in March 2016, by rubber dinghy on the island of Lesbos; they were immediately separated because they weren’t carrying their marriage documents. Muhammed was jailed for six months—a normal occurrence for Pakistani asylum-seekers—while Dunya was allowed to make her way to Athens. Once there, she stayed at a makeshift camp at the abandoned Elliniko Airport until Muhammed was able to join her in September. Three months later, they moved into the small flat in Athens.
Muhammed first started going to Patras in February, his visits eventually stretching to weeks at a time. If he reaches Italy, he will send for Dunya through family reunification, which allows those who already reside legally in an EU member state to be joined by their spouses and family members. For Pakistanis, family reunification has almost always been a dead end simply because they usually do not qualify as refugees. But for Muhammed and his Sunni Afghan wife, there may still be hope: They are from two different countries and from two different sects of Islam, so there could be grounds for asylum.
So far, though, Muhammed’s luck has been poor. He is nearing his self-imposed three-week deadline and has yet to get underneath a truck before being apprehended by the port police. After several days at the port, in May I return to Athens, and for one week straight, Muhammed messages me at the same time every night: the time that he gets back to the factory after yet another failed attempt.
“I’m angry today. Again I failed, again the police beat me,” reads one of his messages. A few days later, he asks if I know anyone in Patras who can give him shoes. “The police took my shoes tonight when they caught me.”
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Refugees and migrants have been camping out in abandoned buildings surrounding Patras for many years now. Before the mass influx of refugees arriving to Greece between the summer of 2015 and early spring 2016, only a few dozen refugees at any given time would be at the port.
“This is not new; it’s been happening for many years,” says 29-year-old Konstantinos Balaskas. He works at a beachfront café that his family owns just 10 minutes by car down the street from the abandoned factory where the refugees are camped out. “Generally, they do not pose significant problems to the people in the harbor area, except for some isolated incidences.”
With refugees still trickling into the islands every day, and with an asylum process so sluggish it seems to have stopped, Greece is now struggling to accommodate more than 50,000 stranded refugees, according to the UNHCR. So far, of the 160,000 refugees to be relocated to other EU member states by September, only 20,000 have actually been moved out of Greece.
Furthermore, with the evacuation of several squats and abandoned buildings in central Athens where hundreds of refugees were camped out for more than a year, more refugees are now making the three-hour journey to Patras to try their luck at the game.
“People don’t have any other way except Patras,” an 18-year-old refugee from Afghanistan told me in a WhatsApp message the morning after 20 refugees managed to make it onto ships. It had been a warm night in early June. Nights like these give a renewed hope to others who are seeking to do the same.
“Everything depends on hope,” Khan said to me, days before his final departure from Patras. “That’s why we are still here.”