ATHENS (Reuters) - Syrian shopkeeper Osama fled the fighting in Aleppo convinced he would be welcomed in Europe. Five months later, he is stuck in near-bankrupt Greece, where money and sympathy are scarce.
Beaten up and robbed by traffickers when they arrived in Athens, Osama, his wife and two children were arrested as illegal immigrants and thrown into detention when they recounted their ordeal to Greek police. Ordered out of Greece but without any place to go, he rues the day he set foot in the country.
“All our hope is now in God. There is a war in Syria and the country has been destroyed,” said the 35-year-old as he sat in a dingy Athens basement apartment with a Syrian flag on the wall.
“In Greece, we have had the most bitter experiences and we cannot go to another country. We have no money, no IDs or passports to travel. We are trapped here.”
Greek authorities say police are obliged to arrest people who enter the country illegally.
Osama’s family is just one of a growing number of Syrian refugees arriving in Europe in the hope of a fresh start, only to find themselves trapped in its most financially ravaged nation, where the crisis has fuelled hatred for migrants.
Last year, Greece - the main gateway into the EU for migrants - arrested more than 8,000 Syrians for entering illegally as the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad raged on. Most had hoped to make their way to northern Europe.
Rights groups have criticized the treatment of Syrians in Greece, saying they are subject to arrest, detention, refusal of asylum and even deportation - a far cry from their reception in other EU nations like Sweden and Germany, which offer some form of automatic protection to Syrians.
“The situation for Syrian asylum seekers, like other asylum seekers in Greece, is pretty bad,” said Eva Cosse, who monitors Greece for rights group Human Rights Watch.
Osama’s story highlights the predicament of Syrian refugees, who find scant sympathy in Greece and little prospect of finding asylum or getting a job. Desperate to leave, they end up being exploited by traffickers.
After a bomb hit his home in Aleppo last year, Osama paid 7,000 euros ($9,000) to traffickers who smuggled his family by boat from Turkey to the Greek island of Samos.
Once in Athens, smugglers promising to take them onward in Europe lured them to an apartment where they were blindfolded, beaten, and their documents and 12,500 euros in savings stolen.
To their shock, police responded by arresting the entire family - including their children aged 3 and 5 - and putting them in an overcrowded detention center for illegal immigrants.
“We had been robbed, they nearly destroyed our souls, and we were jailed even though we were victims,” said Osama, who only gave his first name for fear of his relatives’ safety in Syria.
Weeks after their initial detention, Osama says he returned to the police station to follow up on their robbery, only to be arrested again and held for 10 days since he had stayed over the time limit allowed under their deportation order.
With a return to Syria ruled out and moving elsewhere in Europe impossible without money or passports, Osama’s family now rarely ventures out of their home in Athens, fearful of arrest by police and attacks by far-right vigilantes.
Nearly destitute, they rely on fellow Syrians to survive.
Depending on where they arrive, Syrians face a “protection lottery” when they enter the EU, Human Rights Watch says, and by all accounts, Greece is one of the worst choices.
Since the start of 2012, at least 55 Syrians have been deported by Greece, the agency says, citing police figures.
Greece denies deporting Syrians, saying 58 repatriations last year were of those who wanted to go back - though HRW disputes that since voluntary returns are listed separately from deportations, and the EU’s Frontex agency has also reported a sharp increase in “forced returns” of Syrians by Greece.
Greece also rejected 150 asylum applications from Syrians last year and approved only two, the UN refugee agency says, when thousands fled a conflict that has claimed 70,000 lives.
“We wonder how on earth the examining authorities could consider any Syrian claim that was put in the course of 2012 as unfounded?” said Petros Mastakas, an associate protection officer at the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees.
“We have no answer from the police on this.”
Greece - where even putting in a request for asylum requires camping for days outside an Athens office - is known for extremely low recognition rates for asylum seekers and in 2011 approved only 0.5 percent of refugee cases, Cosse said.
Such is Greece’s reputation that most Syrians refuse to request asylum here, the UNHCR says.
The UNHCR has suggested options to allow Syrians to stay legally in Greece even if they don’t want to seek asylum, but has had little response from the authorities, he said.
Instead, Greek police end up arresting and releasing Syrians with orders to leave the country within 30 days even though most have few practical options to do so - leaving them at risk of a vicious circle of arrest and detention, rights groups say.
In a sprawling government complex in an Athens suburb, Greece’s top immigration official at the public order ministry denies that the country treats Syrian refugees unfairly.
“What we are trying to do is to treat them differently - to begin with, to release them from detention centers,” said Patroklos Georgiadis, adding that Greece wants to give Syrians special status but has yet to find a legal formula to do so.
He also denies that Greece has rejected Syrian asylum requests, saying that a 3-5 year backlog meant those who applied last year could not have had their case heard yet.
He defended Greece’s detention of Syrians, saying it had no choice but to arrest anyone who entered illegally and that it was legal to hold them for up to 18 months.
Greece’s deep financial crisis has exacerbated its long-running struggle to handle the influx of migrants from Asia and Africa, and rising hostility towards migrants has prompted a surge in attacks against them and helped usher the far-right Golden Dawn party to parliament last year for the first time.
The numbers of Syrians entering Greece so far represent a tiny fraction of the one million refugees who have fled Syria since the crisis erupted in 2011, but the government is worried that a sudden influx could stretch the nation beyond its limits.
“I told a counterpart that every morning, I have migrants from Syria on my mind,” Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said in a speech this week. “And this isn’t my job.”
Still, most Syrians who come to Greece are shocked at the depths of anti-immigrant sentiment here and their treatment at the hands of the police, says Aref Alobeid, a Syrian political science professor who has lived in Greece for over two decades.
“They cannot believe that such things happen in an EU country,” he said. “That’s why most of them want to leave after a few days and go to another European country.”
Among them is a former Syrian police officer turned rebel, who did not give his name for fear of his family’s fate.
He believed traffickers who told him he would be able to move on to other European countries after entering Greece from Turkey. What he got instead was a three-month stay in a cramped detention cell with 50 others in a Greek border town.
He refuses to seek asylum here, saying he was shocked to see police beating fellow detainees. Later in Athens he witnessed attacks against migrants by far-right vigilantes.
“You make a request, you are given a piece of paper, you are not allowed to go to another country, you are not given any help,” the 26-year-old said, showing off shrapnel wounds he sustained in Syria. “What’s the point? There is no hope.”
Additional reporting by Renee Maltezou; Editing by Giles Elgood