HONG KONG — As big as the world may be and as connected as it may seem, there are invisible worlds that most of us know nothing about. Take Greece, for example, a country that, aside from its well-documented economic crisis and accompanying five years of straight recession, has been dealing with the consequences of an EU treaty ratified in Dublin in 2003. The Dublin II Treaty says that applications for EU asylum seekers can only be evaluated in the country where migrants enter. Because of geography, this has essentially forced Greece into becoming the main processor of all asylum seekers and political refugees flooding into the European Union in the past decade.
It is this relatively hidden story – and its accompanying sense of urgency – that drove Greece-based photographers Enri Canaj and Angelos Tzortzinis and journalist Ioannis Papadopoulos to produce a short documentary, Exodus, made up of material gathered between 2008 and 2012. According to Papadopoulos, “This short documentary wasn’t a project that we had long planned. We decided to combine all the material we had gathered throughout the years from separate stories on the topic and create a solid piece. It doesn’t reflect on the whole experience of the immigrants here, but it casts light on some of the most important parts of it.”
I ask Papadopoulos: Is it purely the Dublin II Treaty that has created this very human crisis in Greece? To offer some perspective on the scale of the issue: according to statistics, in 2010, some 90% of all illegal border crossings into the EU took place through Greece, with immigrants coming mostly from West Asia, North Africa, and South Asia, a reflection of the geopolitical conflicts affecting the countries from which these people were forced to flee. Papadopoulos concedes that yes, the treaty did play its part, but the issue is also the “lack of bilateral diplomatic relations between Greece and Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, ignorance from the state and slow responses, not to mention the general economic crisis.”
Greece was never meant to be an end point for those who have landed there; not then and especially not now, given the country’s many problems of its own to contend with. Nevertheless, asylum seekers and refugees become essentially trapped, and even if they do manage to escape, if they get picked up in another EU country they are sent back to Greece, because this is stipulated by the Dublin II: The first EU country an immigrant lands in is required to process the person’s application for political asylum.
As Papadopoulos notes, “This is about people trying to pass through and getting trapped in Greece. About the ones who dream of a better life in the West and, because of Dublin II, end up in Greece instead, selling scrap to make a living, getting paid one euro an hour to gather olives, or forced to go dumpster diving for food. We get glimpses of what it is like to live in Greece as an undocumented immigrant, not as an immigrant in general.”
“The documentary follows the journey of undocumented immigrants from their two paths of entry: By sea in Samos and by land in Evros, followed by glimpses of their lives in Athens, tracking movements to Goumenitsa and Patras, the two main cities where undocumented immigrants attempt their escape. Hence the title: ‘Exodus,’” he says.
For many, the life these refugees lead is unimaginable. But it’s real and it’s happening right now — and in some way, we are all responsible for it, if you think about why these people had to leave their homes in the first place. As two Palestinian brothers living in Athens once told me, no one leaves their home or their country forever unless they are made to for reasons beyond their control. Meanwhile the rest of us are forced to stand by and watch, powerless to affect or improve a political situation that is as inhumane as it is global.