Street hawkers from Senegal in west Africa try to eke out a living on the streets of the Greek capital, aiming to keep one step ahead of the police and sort out their tangled legal status at the same time.
They share similar stories — of coming to Europe in the hope of making some money to send home to their families, but finding themselves caught out by the economic crisis and in a no-man’s land of bureaucracy.
“I have five children and a wife in Senegal. She tells me that since I have been here, they don’t have hardly enough to eat,” says one Senegalese street seller in central Athens who goes by the name El Hadj.
On a recent Friday evening, El Hadj and several of his friends are outside the Economics Faculty of the University of Athens, each one standing with a pile of leather bags, hawking their wares in the hope of making a rare sale.
They are seeking asylum in Greece — a process that rarely succeeds, but allows them in the meantime to get a “Red Card” providing for a six-month stay that can be renewed — after ending up here from other European countries.
They came to Greece before the debt crisis brought an end to the economic good times and now they are stuck here as their papers do not allow them to leave the country to try their luck elsewhere.
“The Red Card gives us no rights, other than to hang out on the street,” says Soumara, who came to Greece from Turkey with plans to go on to Sweden. Soumara and others interviewed declined to give their full names to avoid attention from the authorities.
“We can go to the Senegal consulate and they will give you papers so that you can go home, but who is going to pay for the flight? I don’t have the money for that,” Soumara said.
For this group of Senegalese, living in Greece is made worse by the racist abuse they say they frequently encounter, from ordinary people and the police who they say rough them up.
Alioune, 32, said one policeman who stopped him when he was selling his wares in Pireaus, the port area of Athens, subjected him to racial abuse, then beat him up at the police station.
“They take your wares and they take your money. Other times they put drugs in your bag ... I know someone who spent a year in jail like that,” said Alioune, who came to Greece after Belgium and Italy.
Another, Mustafa said: “I am married to a Greek woman and I have a child of three months, but when I go out with them, people look at me in a strange way, as though I wasn’t human.”
Greek officials recognize that there are cases of racial abuse by the police, driven by the tensions between communities that are made worse in hard times, but that racism is not institutionalized.
The group of hawkers live in the poor district of Victoria, central Athens, which is also home to drug addicts and prostitutes and where NGO’s say about 30,000 illegal immigrants live.
Typically, Alioune lives with five other people in a small apartment, forced to share so as to make up the rent.
“The rent costs us 350 euros [US$468] a month. We have no choice — if there are fewer people then we would have real problems to pay,” he said.
Apart from sticking together as a group, their only source of help appears to be from students at the Faculty of Economics, known for its radical political traditions.
They say the “anarchist” students pay for legal aid when they are arrested and allow them to hide in the faculty with their wares if there is a police raid.