10 December 2000

Dateline Athens: The stepping stone where dreams die

10 December 2000
The Times of India

Greece: The stepping stone where dreams die

By Siddharth Varadarajan
The Times of India News Service

ATHENS: For illegal emigrants from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh,
Greece has become the transit point of choice, the haven where one's
energies and finances can be recouped before making that final journey
to the promised land, Canada. Around 80,000 people from South Asia are
said to be in Greece: among them 10,000 Indians, most of whom work on
farms and piggeries.

Though the routes the migrants take vary, the idea is to get as close
to Greece as possible legitimately and then to do what is called
"dunki maarna'', or border jumping. Alternatively, the emigrant
acquires a seaman's book for Rs 30,000, joins a ship at a neighbouring
port as `crew' and then disappears once the ship docks at a Greek port.

In fact, the ship route is now such a well-organised racket that tramp
steamers make all their money transporting human cargo as `crew'.

"Last month,'' says India's Ambassador Gurdip Singh Bedi, "the Greek
authorities brought a shipowner to me who claimed his entire crew of 44
had disappeared. And you know the best part? All of them were Singhs
from Jalandhar!''

The whole operation is best described by Bhupinder, a young man from
Jalandhar. He admits he wasn't very good at geography in school. But
then even the brightest students from India, he says, would never have
heard of Moldova, the former Soviet republic on the edge of the Balkans
from where Bhupi and a band of enterprising Sikhs crossed over into
what they thought was `Europe'.

Though the journey to Moscow and Moldova was smooth, getting to Greece
had been traumatic. ``In Moldova, we destroyed our passports and
crossed into Romania. Our agent was to take us to Germany, instead we
came to Bulgaria. After three weeks, we walked across to Greece but
were caught and sent back to Bulgaria. Then the agent put us on a boat
and we landed in Turkey. Finally, another boat took us to a Greek
island, and then the mainland.'' In all, the journey took four months
and cost Bhupinder Rs 3 lakh.

Three years later, Bhupinder is still in Greece, speaks Greek haltingly
and has acquired work papers. ``But life is no good'', he says. ``I
earn 14 thousand rupees a month in a factory and some money from
selling things on the streets. I am just passing time before I move on
to Canada. I hear one an earn a lot there.''

Lost passports the key to golden future

The key to successful illegal emigration, whether to Greece or
elsewhere in the Balkans before making the final dash to the dream
destination, is to destroy passports and other document that could tie
a person down to the country of his origin, say some who have made it
thus far.

When an illegal immigrant is arrested, the Greek authorities cannot
immediately deport him. They need to establish his nationality, a time-
consuming process. Of the 243 illegal immigrants referred to the Indian
Embassy here by the Greek police this year, only 83 have so far been
authenticated as Indians and deported. ``At least 30 per cent of the
boys intentionally give us wrong information so that we can never
confirm that they are Indians,'' says Indi'a ambassador.

For sheer ingenuity and determination, however, it is hard to beat the
Bangladeshis. ``I moved to Calcutta and then Delhi, working a while in
both cities'', says Monir, a salesman of costume jewellery at a
streetside stall. ``Then I crossed the border into Pakistan through
Punjab and went to Karachi.'' Monir worked as a tailor for two years,
purchasing a Pakistani identity card. ``One of the ladies I stitched
clothes for was married to a top General and he got me visas for Iran
and Turkey.''

From Istambul, Monir came to Greece through the `dunki' route -- taking
a boat across the river that separates Turkey from Greece and then
trekking several days till he was far enough from the border to use
public transport.

In 1998, the Greek government announced an amnesty for those who had
been living in the country for more than two years. The announcement
led to a flood of new arrivals from South Asia. Once in Greece, they
would approach certain police stations and report their passport lost.
Armed with a police receipt, they applied for a duplicate passport and
proceeded to claim they had been living in the country for years. Other
supporting documents such as tax receipts and utility bills were
available for a small fee.

These past few months, with the Greek government on the verge of
announcing another amnesty, the number of arrivals has again increased
dramatically. ``Agents sitting in Jalandhar seem to know more about
immigration policy here than most Greeks,'' says Tito Singh, an Athens-
based journalist. ``It's all amazingly well-planned.''

The Christmas season also traditionally witnesses an increase in
illegal entrants. The reason? ``It's not that the police are more
relaxed,'' says Raja Mohammad, a native of Gujrat in Pakistan. ``Like
others, their expenses also increase during the festive season. They
need the extra earnings that people like us provide''.

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