Zalmaï | Walking in Quickstand

Country of origin: Afghanistan
Project location: Greece
Program: Magnum Foundation Fund
Year: 2011

Ten years after the fall of the Taliban and the intervention of the international community in Afghanistan, Afghans continue to be the most exiled people in the world. In 2010, three out of ten refugees in the world were originating from Afghanistan. Disillusioned and dispirited from a peace that never comes, Afghans are on exile’s road again. Greece, Europe’s first entry point from the East is receiving the biggest numbers of migrants and asylum-seekers from Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East, with Afghans, of course, topping the list of nationalities in need of international protection. Greece has been condemned by almost all international human rights organizations for the most dysfunctional asylum system in Europe, non-existent refugee reception procedures and human rights violations.


On Tuesday December 13, Zalmaï and Judith Sunderland spoke about the Afghan refugee situation in Greece. Zalmaï was born in Afghanistan and left for Switzerland in 1980, after the invasion of the Russian Army. As a freelance photographer, he covers stories related to exile and has often focused on Afghan refugees. Judith Sunderland is a senior researcher on Western Europe at Human Rights Watch. She is now looking closely at the situation of migrants and asylum seekers in Greece.

ZALMAÏ: After the invasion of the Russian Army in 1979, we had 7 million refugees around the world, and most of them were in Pakistan and Iran. But after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, almost 5 million people went back to Afghanistan. In the following years, another wave of people left Afghanistan due to the situation and on going hostilities. One their way to Europe, many Afghans end up in Greece living in deplorable conditions, unable to move forwards or backwards. Greece has been condemned by almost all international human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, for its dysfunctional asylum system and poor reception conditions. Who do you think is responsible for the unchanging situation of refugees, including Afghan refugees, in Greece? Is it European countries or Greece? Greece is deep in the economic crisis. Maybe the Greek government doesn't want to deal with this problem because of domestic political reasons; maybe it's a tool for pressuring other European States?

SUNDERLAND: That is a very good but very complicated question. In the European Union some rules apply to all member countries, and there is supposed to be a lot of coordination and cooperation on migration and asylum. There are also supposed be the same rules and procedures in all countries with respect to asylum seekers, to make sure that those in need of protection have the same access to it all over the European Union.

But the reality is that the level of protection and the level of access, even just to the procedures to ask for asylum, vary significantly across the European Union. And Greece, which is one of the countries of entry into the European Union, certainly for Afghans, has an absolutely dysfunctional asylum system, and most undocumented migrants and asylum seekers who arrive in Greece, find themselves literally trapped in what one Afghan man whom I spoke with recently called "a jail – a big jail, but a jail nonetheless." They're stuck there because Greece is obliged to prevent them from going elsewhere in the European Union, but while they're in Greece they have no access to social services, or to any kind of assistance. There's a tremendous backlog in the asylum system, so that applying for asylum is very difficult, and once you do it, you could wait for months and years before you even get a chance to tell your story.

So the answer to your question is that it's Greece's responsibility, but it's also the European Union, and the European Union is not helping Greece as much as it should. But when it comes down to it, it's really up to Greece to make the necessary changes in it's system to provide the best possible protection for people and humane treatment for those who may not be in need of international protection, in other words, refugee status, but who nonetheless have rights and dignity and must be respected.

ZALMAÏ: Yes, it seems to me that we have multiple human rights violation here. Where and how do these human rights violations start?

SUNDERLAND: Well, it starts in the countries that are forcing people to leave, because of persecution, war, violence, dire poverty. Then there are violations along the journey. Once they're in Greece, the violations begin the minute they cross the border. They are subject to detention in absolutely inhumane, degrading conditions; they are subject at times to physical abuse, neglect in respect to food, and medical and humanitarian assistance.

And those who want to apply for asylum often can't do so, because the system is so dysfunctional and slow that many end up spending months just trying to get into a police station to apply for asylum, and once they do, they are still not entitled to any kind of social assistance. They can work, but it's very hard to get work because of the economic crisis in Greece, so many live in really deplorable conditions and suffer all sorts of medical problems as a result. And of course, many people who have suffered persecution and violence have unattended mental health needs.

ZALMAÏ: Especially in the case of Aghans, it seems to me as if most of the world has had enough with Afghan refugees, because it's been going on for 30 years, and still goes on today, after the war on terror. For me this is the consequence of this war – as you say, human rights violations start in Afghanistan. Everybody knows what is going on, but nobody does anything. Greece is a European country, with international and European obligations regarding human rights, so how can the rest of Europe accept this kind of behavior from the Greek government? Recently, xenophobia has been rising in Greece. I had been working there for months, really worried for myself, because of the work I was doing and mainly because of the color of my skin. In some parts of the city I received stares from people, I don't think I received anywhere else in the world until now. It was difficult for me. I've covered Afghanistan for many years – of course it's a dangerous place, but it was very strange for me to have this war-zone feeling of insecurity in a European country. In some parts of Athens, you can't walk after dark if you look foreign. The Greek government is playing with fire, and maybe it's going to burn them one day. What do you think, are they doing enough?

SUNDERLAND: Well, they're clearly not doing anywhere near enough. Racism and xenophobia are alarming problems in Greece, and over the past two years this has become a life-threatening situation for migrant asylum seekers, particularly in downtown Athens. I was there a couple of weeks ago, talking to victims of violence, as well as the authorities, to find out what they're doing about it, and the fact of the matter is, there is very little acknowledgment by the authorities that this is a serious problem.

In May 2011, a Greek man was killed, allegedly, by foreigners, as he was taking his wife to the hospital to give birth – a terrible, terrible crime. But after that, vigilante groups rampaged through neighborhoods with a high concentration of immigrants in Athens, attacking everybody they saw, even pulling people off buses to beat them, kick them, stab them. These attacks continue today, though not with the same intensity or frequency.

There are allegations that the police have stood by and allowed the violence to occur, or that the police do not respond when they are called, and we heard stories from people who went to the police for help after being attacked and they were either turned away, or were told that they needed to pay money to file an official complaint –which is either a mistake by the police or a willful misunderstanding of the law in Greece – or they were told that the police just can't get involved, that they had to organize and fight back themselves – a shocking encouragement of gang warfare, really alarming. And where there is increased police presence, these vigilante groups of citizens (that may or may not be affiliated to political parties) organize themselves and go around attacking people. We've spoken with women who have been attacked on the street, including a woman who was six-months pregnant when she was attacked by thugs as she was also carrying her young child.

So, it's a really terrible situation, and I have to say that on this front, the European Union is silent. When you hear talk about Greece today, it's about the financial crisis, it's not about a racism crisis, it's not about a crisis of democracy and human rights.

ZALMAÏ: Absolutely, you said the European Union puts pressure on the Greek government, how do they do this?

SUNDERLAND: Well, they can do it in many ways. For the past several years they have pressured Greece to fix its asylum system, with mixed results. There has been some progress: the backlog of cases has been reduced and there have been important reforms. But detention conditions remain terrible, access to the system remains full of obstacles, and a lot of the money that the European Union has given Greece has not been used properly or hasn't been used at all.

With respect to racism and violence, the EU has laws regulating this area. Greece needs to make sure its criminal laws comply with EU laws. It has to implement laws already in place, and the EU can pressure them to do that by focusing attention on it, by forcing Greece to take technical assistance, and to ensure that its law enforcement officers are properly trained to detect and investigate racist crimes.

ZALMAÏ: What should we expect from the new government, from the far-right parties that are now represented in government? Because this reform was under the previous socialist government, but now there is a coalition government, and I think the situation will become more difficult.

SUNDERLAND: I think you're right, not only because of the composition of the government, but because of the financial crisis, which has become a kind of catch-all excuse, frankly, for not addressing problems that must be addressed. We can be realistic but not pessimistic.

ZALMAÏ: As we are in Europe and not in Africa, and Greece is a modern European country. As you were saying before, Greek public administration does not have the capacity to absorb European funds. Why is that?

SUNDERLAND: That is such a good question. It's a mystery to me how they can receive millions of euros and not use it. I think it comes down to the lack of capacity, of infrastructure, of forward-thinking. They can come up with ideas, but don't have trained people to implement them. They can come up with a plan to build reception centers but then encounter resistance in the communities. No one wants a reception center in their backyard. And of course, there's always the possibility of corruption.

ZALMAÏ: On what you said about resistance from local communities: I was recently in the Evros, the Afghan entry point to Greece from Turkey, and I was very disturbed to see this detention center, 30 kms from the closest taxi or bus, and I saw families standing outside in 34 degrees Celsius heat (93 degrees Fahrenehit). No one gives these people a bottle of water, they don't even tell them where they have to go, what they have to do, they just tell them to leave. I saw this, thinking, what a horrible situation for people, and also, thinking about the Greek government begging for money all over Europe, getting billions of dollars, and they are not able to give people a glass of water when they ask for help. I think the racism starts from this point. I think Greek society is very deeply closed on itself, they cannot see further, they cannot plan, and I think the economic crisis is a result of deep problems in this country. Greece has a huge problem with itself, and I think they have to resolve this before the economic crisis or immigration crisis.

SUNDERLAND: Greece did not have much immigration until about 20 years ago. It's in the past 10 years that it's been significant and in the last five years it has intensified and the majority are Afghans. Now, in the past few weeks, people are not spending as much time in detention as they used to, in really horrible conditions. Now they are released and abandoned. Most try to go to Athens, many to Patras, a port city where they try to sneak under trucks or on ferries to Italy and risk their lives and limbs doing so. Even if they succeed, they get caught by the Italian coast guard and get sent back, and along the way they can be abused by the police, by the coast guard and get seriously hurt. And of course, many are young kids–

ZALMAÏ: Yes, we didn't even talk about this!

SUNDERLAND: Kids without parents or relatives, who have gone on this tremendous journey by themselves, and end up living in abandoned buildings. There's a huge abandoned factory near the port in Patras where hundreds of people live, including many boys between 12 and 18 years of age.

It's an appalling situation, and the European Union has taken some responsibility, finally. There was a big case decided by the European Court of Human Rights in January of 2011, that found it unlawful for Belgium to send an asylum seeker back to Greece, because the conditions of detention were so inhuman that it amounted to torture and ill treatment under international and European human rights law. After that, other countries have stopped sending asylum seekers back to Greece.

Now, let me just explain what that means: under European Union rule, the country that the person first sets foot, within the European Union, is where that person has to apply to asylum. So if somebody enters the European Union via Greece, then makes it to Italy, or Germany, or Belgium, they can and will be sent back to Greece for Greece to process their asylum claim. But after that European Union Human Rights court ruling in January, other European Union countries have suspended those transfers to return people to Greece, and they are processing those people's asylum claims. But of course, that's helpful to those people who have managed to get out of Greece, but as I was saying, many try and fail.

ZALMAÏ: Now Patras has a new, very sophisticated port that makes it very difficult for immigrants to pass through security. Patras is no longer the favorite destination for them. On the other side, we try to build a wall between Turkey and Greece, which, I was just reading this morning, is going to be 150 kms. How can Europe accept something like this from the Greek government? A wall is not going to help immigrants when they have to leave a war-zone country to save their lives. I think they are going to find another way to get inside. We will reduce it in one place, but there will be another.

But for me, the image of Europe here is very important, because Greece is part of Europe, and Europe is building a wall to try to protect itself, while they close the border from Patras. Nobody knows exactly how many people are in Greece as immigrants, but I was recently in Afghanistan and talked to the Ministry of Refugees there, and their estimation is that about 60,000 to 65,000 people are blocked in Greece. What's going to happen to them?

SUNDERLAND: Well, that's a good question. I completely agree with you that this wall is a terrible idea; it's completely ineffective, and the imagery and the message it sends are terrible. The fence is actually going to be about 12 kilometers, or 8 miles, long. Thankfully, the EU refused to fund the fence-

ZALMAÏ: Thank God!

SUNDERLAND: Yes, at the very least. Some have condemned the idea, but it looks like it's going to go forward. The problem is, the EU is interested in making sure people don't get out of Greece, so in some ways, countries like Germany and France are probably happy to see Greece burdened with these people.

ZALMAÏ: Yes, the Europeans want to keep Afghans and other migrants in Greece, and the Greeks don't want to resolve the problem. I think we are witnessing a crime against humanity.

SUNDERLAND: There are two things to say about that. And first of all, I remember, a few minutes ago you said that you think people are just tired of Afghan refugees, and it made me think, well, you can't get tired of refugees, there's no room in law or in our conscience to be tired of refugees, people who are in need of protection have to get it, so we can't allow governments to get tired of it.

Also, while it's true that sovereign nations have the right to control their nations and have the right to prevent people from coming who don't have a legal right to do so, they have to enforce those rules and enforce their borders in a humane and legal way. And that means all sorts of things, from proper treatment when they are caught, humane conditions of detention, and proper legal avenues for appealing against decisions to be sent back to their countries of origin. That's really where the legal fight is.

Zalmai, your photographs are beautiful, and heartbreaking, and so true. There's a picture of young boys sitting outdoors, and none of them are looking at you, at the camera, they are all sort of looking off into the distance, and I just wanted you to tell me about that situation, what you were talking about.

ZALMAÏ: I was walking outside Patras with other immigrants trying to find kids to interview. These boys are 15, 16, and 17 years old, all alone. I spent some time with them to try to understand their desires and their hopes. And when you spend a lot of time with people, you can get very interesting things. It was very sad for me to see this new generation of Afghans, trying to dream something through exile. Afghanistan today needs this young force very much, but they've lost all hope for the future.

SUNDERLAND: Yes, I talked with some kids living in Iran for years, and they all mention discrimination, and in particular in continuing their studies. Some kids said they had the absolute best grades, but they couldn't go to the university as Afghans.

ZALMAÏ: It's such a complex situation. I'm not expecting Greece to resolve the problem, but they can at least help some people, because Greek people themselves are immigrants in other parts of the world.

Born in Kabul, Afghanistan, Zalmaï left the country after the Soviet invasion in 1980. He traveled to Lausanne, Switzerland, where he became a Swiss citizen. Following his passion for Photography, which he discovered very early in life,  Zalmaï pursued combined studies at both the School of Photography of Lausanne and at the Professional Photography Training Center of Yverdon. In 1989, he began to work as a freelance photographer, traveling around the world from Indonesia to Egypt, from Cuba to the Central African Republic, and eventually returned to Afghanistan, where he continues documenting the ongoing war and plight of the Afghan people. 

Zalmaï has spent most of his life between Europe, the United States and Asia. His work has been published in several magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times Magazine, Time Magazine, The New Yorker Magazine, Harper's Magazine , Newsweek, La Repubblica etc... while he has worked for a number of International Organizations and NGOs, including Human Rights Watch, International Committee of the Red Cross, UN Office On Drug and Crime, and the UN Refugee Agency. He has exhibited around the world at museums, galleries, universities and cultural centers and his work has earned him several international awards, the latest being the Visa D'Or from the Visa Pour l'Image International Photojournalism Festival and a grant by Getty Images.