Athens, 6:30pm: My anthropological fieldwork took a surprising turn when I asked my informants’ non-English speaking friend directly about sex trade in the region. We had walked back to Omonoia Square at this point, and I had lost my patience with letting the field ‘lead me’. The next 90 minutes were some of the most stressful of my life. Having spent time in the slums of Mumbai, I thought that there wasn’t much that could disconcert me. I was, however, remarkably wrong…
As a part of the research for my MA thesis in Anthropology at Tallinn University, I spent three months conducting fieldwork in different parts of Greece. My project, which aims to explore and understand the experience of being a male refugee in Greece, took me through multiple cities and a web of fascinating people, many of whom shared dramatic (and traumatic) accounts of their lives and journeys as refugees. My experience in the field was thrilling, boring, disorienting, humbling and anxiety-inducing all at the same time. In this post, I will describe a particularly unique and interesting experience I had in the infamous Omonoia district of Greece’s capital city.
During the first two weeks of my stay in Greece, I found that something called 'survival sex' had become an unfortunate part of the lives of young male migrants in Greece - especially in the Omonoia district of Athens. Survival sex, a phrase commonly used by the UNHCR, refers to 'prostitution engaged in by a person because of their extreme need.' As much as I was shocked to find this out, I was also intrigued and wanted to learn more about human - and sex - trafficking in the context of male refugees in Greece. I watched a documentary film* about this topic which informed me that these boys were paid as little as 10-20 euros per night.
I spent the next two months trying to get more information about this topic, trying to find people who would talk about it or accompany me for research in Omonoia. The responses normally ranged from "It’s too organised, you will never find it unless you knew where to look and have people on the inside, and even then, it’s too dangerous." to "If you care for your life, I would suggest you better not go there. It’s not at all a predictable place you might be killed. Or worse, kidnapped and beaten until someone agreed to paid ransom."
Due to these obviously concerning comments, I was very nervous and apprehensive about the trip. For several weekends, I almost bought tickets but never really mustered the courage to take the train south. On the last weekend of my stay, however, I made the bold choice of taking the trip, under the pressure of having promised to cover full costs of the trip for one of my Arabic-speaking informants who had agreed to accompany me. My 19-year-old Palestinian-Syrian research participant and I took the overnight train to Athens from Thessaloniki. Arriving at 5am on a Sunday morning, we were received by another young Palestinian-Syrian friend of my interlocutor.
The initial hours we spent in the city were much less eventful than I had anticipated. In the evening, however, the social atmosphere around us shifted. By 6pm, we had entered Omonoia Square, where I was told about how prostitution of young male refugees took place. The boys would generally ‘hang out’ in the main square while their 'customers' (generally older European men) would watch and make their selections while sitting in a cafe across the street.
After walking by the customer cafe, we went on to pass by an adult theater where the boys would be taken instead if the customer did not want to take them to their house.
Subsequently, we went to a park with about 30-40 people, nearly all clutching cannabis cigarettes. Red-eyed, slow-moving, and obviously confused by the presence of a newcomer, they would come very close to inspect us. Walking back through empty streets with closed shops, the boys then went on to take me through more alleys that were filled with upwards of 100 people. Drug use was ubiquitous on these streets, as individuals openly injected heroin, insufflated cocaine, and smoked other substances I could not immediately identify. On several streets, prostitutes met with clients and haggled intensely over prices. Although prostitution is legal in Greece if the person is older than 18 years and legitimately employed at a state-run brothel, street-selling and solicitation is not.
I was shocked by the boldness of this illicit drug use and solicitation. There was no police presence that I could see. My informants suggested that this part of Athens was effectively 'lawless' when it came to these matters, operating under the jurisdiction of loosely organised anarchist groups. Beyond my shock at all this, I was consumed by paranoia, jittery due to the sheer number of people in the small, smoky, dimly-lit alleys we navigated. I often saw small spaces filled with 250-300 people, primarily men. My informants indicated that these men were likely to be refugees or asylum-seekers, given the demographics of the area we were in.
I was unable to completely trust the people I went with, since they kept leading me through street after street, despite my clear requests to call it off. They would ask me to trust them and follow them without giving clear information, sometimes even being misleading in their directions. They also spoke to each other frequently in Arabic without translating for me. I had only met one of the boys twice before this, and his friend the first time that morning. It was not until around 8pm when I was finally able to convince them that I was too uneasy and disoriented to continue safely. Back at a café overlooking Omonoia, I reflected on what had passed.
My fieldwork experience, while intense, was deeply moving on both an intellectual and emotional level. Before visiting Greece, I had inaccurate and stereotypical views of what refugees could experience on their journey into Europe. After seeing the despairing, hostile atmosphere around Omonoia, I had a newfound respect for my informants, who had braved gang violence, corrupt officials, human traffickers, and much more on their journey to become legal residents of the European Union. They were still among the luckier migrants I met – even after arriving into Greece, many asylum-seekers found a country burdened by economic sluggishness, political violence, racism, bureaucratic inefficacy, and urban decay.
This fieldwork experience provided critical context for my work and helped me truly see through the eyes of my research participants, if only for a few hours. This is the power of anthropology, and this is why I chose Tallinn University. My department gave me the guidance, support, and academic freedom to pursue a challenging and deeply important topic. I owe them one of my life’s most intense, meaningful experiences.
Author: Kanchi Ganatra, MA Anthropology
*The documentary mentioned earlier in this post is available here