The regional asylum office sits alongside a main industrial estate road on the outskirts of Thessaloniki, several kilometres from the centre. A collection of container offices surrounds a small patch of wilting grass, trodden to dirt between twenty or so wooden picnic benches.
Driving there from the Help Refugees warehouse we pass the Softex refugee camp, a former textile factory warehouse that became one of the first places to house people when they were moved from the Idomeni camp last year. At first, families and individuals slept and lived in tents inside the warehouse, with basic provisions from the Greek military and government supplemented by NGOs. Most families and vulnerable people have now been housed in proper accommodation, and the tents replaced with containers. Now, the camp is apparently the place to go if you want to smuggle yourself further along the journey into Europe.
Almost every day I’m left with more questions than answers. We had come to the asylum office to install sunshades for the picnic benches. The asylum office is run by the Greek ministry of migration policy, half funded by the Greek government and half by the EU. We are met at the gate by G4S private security guards, with more G4S guards, police and official security inside. But the provisions don’t stretch as far as shade. Working for just a few hours in the midday heat, temperatures well over 30 degrees and little breeze, you could appreciate the need. Tens of people at a time are waiting for their appointment, sitting for hours to be seen. I bumped into Waseem — a young Syrian who helps out at the Help Refugees warehouse during the week — who had come to renew his temporary ID card. He’d been there since 7 in the morning, was still waiting by the time we arrived around 11:30, and didn’t get seen until around 1pm. There was nowhere to get a drink whilst waiting, and he didn’t want to move in case he missed being called.
I wonder again if this is the best use of our resources and time, and why it falls to NGOs to plug the gaps, but no-one else is meeting the need. A lady working for a Greek NGO providing interpreting services told us how much they appreciated it. “For many people, this is their dream coming here,” she said. And to make it a bit less harsh and gruelling has an impact. The NGO, Metadrasi, also ran a crèche to look after children while their parents had their meetings, and we delivered some children’s picnic tables decorated with colourful graffiti by one of the French volunteers.
We worked for around six hours over two days, putting up the temporary sunshades — permanent fixtures, even tarpaulins, are not permitted. The three of us sweated as we moved the concrete bases, drilled holes and hammered in iron pegs to keep the shades in place. Packing up the van on the second day, I watched as two men took off their hats and shoes, determined which way was east and found a quiet place to pray on the ground behind a container. We returned to the warehouse, exhausted from the heat, grateful for a cold drink on the way back.