The new “Cartoneros” of Athens

A mini documentary produced by Refugee Support Agean (RSA) and PRO ASYL (2022)

Βeneficiaries of international protection turn to waste picking to survive

Hundreds of beneficiaries of international protection (BIPs) seek to survive in Greece by turning to informal micro-scale waste picking in urban areas.

The lack of an effective integration policy for recognised refugees, delays in the first issuance and renewals of residence permits and obstacles to access the limited integration program for refugees (HELIOS) leave many refugees no choice than to search for solid waste such as cartons to sell to recycling companies.

Taking their lives in their own hands elderly, parents, minors and chronic sick, women and men alike, walk miles everyday only to earn a few Euros, merely enough to feed their families.

Receiving international protection in Greece may be happy news in the first moment, but it comes along with a risk of destitution soon after, namely the exposure to poverty, hunger and homelessness.

Mode of transport, Motor vehicle, Cloud, Sky, Tire, Plant, Wheel, Building, Travel, Tree

Waste pickers, garbage collectors… In Athens you can see them every day in the busy streets when they are pulling with their bare hands their trolleys that are filled with mountains of solid waste. The sound of their metal trolleys mixes with the noise of the city traffic. They are searching every garbage bin, stopping by supermarkets and big shops to collect cartons and other solid waste. If you look closer, you may see waste pickers also in the end of the weekly markets, where thrown-way fruits and vegetables are collected from those who lack the money to buy them. And yet all these faces and stories remain mostly invisible to „normal“ life.

Historically a precarious profession of the marginalised and poor all over the world, waste picking in Athens used to be carried out mainly by Roma. They search until today for old items to be sold and recycled driving around all corners of the capital with their three-wheelers inviting people through their microphones to bring along what they don’t need anymore.

With the economic crisis evolving, people losing their jobs, the persistence of the Covid-19 pandemic and numbers of newly arriving migrants and refugees increasing in the same time, the profession of waste-pickers (in Greek: „Rakosillektes“) became a subsistence economy to many more people of different backgrounds. Among those are many sans-papiers, asylum seekers and beneficiaries of international protection coming from different countries – such as Afghanistan, who mostly collect cartons. It is those people on the move who are excluded from social benefits for asylum seekers in form of the “Cash-Card”, as they have not managed to enter the asylum system yet, they hold rejections on their asylum applications or they received a protection status and their monthly allowances were cut.

A full day of work of collecting cartons may result in less than 10 Euros in bad days and in good days it may reach up to around 20 Euros. The ones, who cannot afford their own trolleys, share them with partners, assist others who own one or collect in shopping carts, baby strollers or any other means of transportation they find. People of different ages, even children and elderly, pull and push their trolleys with all of their body strength, their clothes and shoes dirty and their hands callous. In summer their faces are burnt, in winter marked by the cold. The work with the waste is hard, dirty and unhealthy. All describe that it makes them sick or worsens pre-existing health problems.

Despite being allowed to work, most beneficiaries of international protection (BIPs) can only find work informally, i.e. in the harvest, in construction sites or in fabrics and other production sites. Others seek work as day labourers and others collect cartons or other solid waste to sell to recycling companies.

They cannot easily work elsewhere mainly because of the lack of Greek language skills  and delays in the issuance of residence permits and in the renewals procedure that create further barriers.

Another major reason specific to «choosing» waste-picking are the limits many refugees face due to their vulnerabilities, such as their age (minors and elderly), their health conditions or because they have dependent family members, babies or chronically sick they need to take care of and whom they cannot leave behind for long periods and on long distances.

Collecting cartons from the garbage is not only viewed by most waste pickers as undignified work, but it is an informal economy, where they face confiscation of their trolleys and fines by the municipal police. They only decide to enter this economy because they suddenly find themselves in a humanitarian emergency situation once they get their positive asylum decisions  and they are forced to find a quick solution by their own – even if it is a painful one.

Wali* (38)

Wali* (38)1 lives in Athens with his one-and-half-year old daughter. He is originally from Afghanistan and arrived to Lesvos, Greece in 2018 together with his wife and four children. A fifth child was born on the island.

They came together to Athens in summer 2020 following a positive asylum decision and the issuance of the residence permits of all family members despite the baby and after their cash assistance was cut.

They soon found themselves homeless in Victoria Square. Their children all got sick.

In order to protect them, they decided to try to leave Greece. His wife and four minor sons could travel to Germany and asked for asylum there. He got stuck in Greece waiting for the issuance of the residence permit of their smallest child. During the waiting period his own papers expired and he applied for their renewal.

Lacking a valid residence permit he could not apply for Helios program. He sought emergency shelter in a camp where he lived for some months with his baby in a tent.

Waiting more than one year and two months for his new residence permit, he encountered many bureaucratic obstacles, not being able to even to open a bank account in order to find a job.

She was crying every day for her mothers’ milk. I am trying to find a small income just to feed my baby daughter. I run from one organization to the other to ask for milk and pampers.

I learned to be a mother and a father for her. But the reality is, I cannot secure our living as a single parent and all of our children need our family to be together.

I am just trying to survive with my daughter in Greece by collecting cartons a few days a week until we get our travel documents. Then we will join our family in Germany…

I started collecting cartons because our money was cut, I couldn’t find another job and we needed money for food. I had no possibility to learn Greek in the camp. I couldn’t even get a tax number.

Since she started walking, I took her sometimes for a few hours with me to collect cartons. Now, I leave her sometimes with a befriended family, so I wont make her tired.

I use her stroller to put the cartons I find. I have no trolley. I never had the money to buy one. It costs around 250 Euros”

The desperate father felt a lack of support by the state while trying to take care of his small child all by himself:

“I walk from Kipseli towards Omonia and stop at the big supermarkets and all garbage bins.

Some shops have made deals with carton collectors who give them little money in exchange for a monopole on the cartons they throw away. Other shops sell themselves the cartons to the recycling companies.

There are many like me searching for cartons. I have to walk a lot and search more. When the stroller is finally full with cartons I bring them to another carton collector who owns a trolley and sell them to him.

I make around 10 Euro a day. It is not a lot of money, but better than nothing. I cannot give my daughter what she needs with the humanitarian help I collect occasionally from different organisations.

I have to make sure she gets what she needs even if it’s a hard job.”

He explains, that it’s not so easy to find enough cartons:

Mariam* (44) and Osman* (61)

Mariam* (44) and Osman* (61)2 are also from Afghanistan.

They arrived to Greece in the end of 2018 with their five children. After a few months in Moria camp on Lesvos Island and more than two years in Volvi camp in Northern Greece, they were transferred to an ESTIA II flat in Athens, where they live until today.

The mother suffers from anaemia and a depression; the father has a heart disorder since almost two decades.

They got their asylum decisions in early 2022.

Their monthly allowances were cut soon after, but they also didn’t receive money for three months in the end of last year – like all the other refugees, because of the disruption in the Cash-Card system.

says Osman who fears to be soon also kicked out from their home.

“We had no choice. In Afghanistan I was a mechanic. Now I am a carton collector.

I tried to find a job, but they said I was too old and I should speak Greek. So I saved some money and we bought a trolley together with another person.

I have a heart disorder and the hard and dirty work pushes me to the edges, but what should we do? We have to feed our children”,

In this time, another Afghan suggested to them to start collecting cartons to survive.

“At first my husband and me were going together to collect cartons. We only went out in the nights from 22pm to 3am in the morning. We felt shame to be seen searching the garbage bins. Now my husband got used to it. He says, that work is no shame. But he suffers from the work conditions and he is scared to face problems with the municipal police.

I still feel shame to be honest. But we would face hunger without that small income. My husband goes only a few times a week to work, because his heart problems worsened lately. He also started having breathing problems since he collects cartons. He works just as long as he can bare it.”

At the beginning, it was very hard for them to search the garbage bins in public, his wife explains further:

In bad days my husband comes home only after 22pm. Sometimes I still go with him and we pass by the end of the weekly market where we find cartons and thrown away fruits and vegetables. When we finish, we go and sell what we collected. They give us around 10 Cent per kilo.

You can imagine this is barely enough to feed our family. We have to look around for food donations and free meals additionally.

Soon, they will tell us to leave our apartment. We will get trouble with the court, if we stay, because the organization housing us first sends threat letters and if a family continues to stay in the house, they take legal measures against them.

We have no money for food, how can we have the money to rent a flat? We cannot receive help from HELIOS, because of the lack of money for the first rents. Everyday, we live from one day to the other without knowing what will happen the next morning.”

The distressed woman goes on describing their struggle for survival in the Greek capital:

Majjid* (44)

Majjid (44)3 lives since three years in Greece with his wife and three underage children.

They are from Afghanistan. Husband and wife as well as their eldest child suffer from a variety of health conditions caused by the traumatic event of a bomb explosion in their home country.

The family arrived in summer 2019 on Lesvos, Greece. After more than a year on the island, they were transferred to a flat in Athens.

The father started collecting cartons a few months before the family received refugee status, when the Cash-Cards for asylum seekers were cut for three months.

They found themselves suddenly without any state help.

“I tried to find other work, but I couldn’t because I cannot speak Greek. My wife and me registered for Greek classes when we came to Athens but a month after they finally started they were disrupted suddenly. We were told to wait for a call and we wait until now.

Then a friend suggested that we could buy together a trolley to collect cartons and share the money. We couldn´t afford it alone. We work 4-5 days a week either during the day starting at 6 in the morning or during the night returning back at 3 in the morning. Usually we are out for 6-13 hours.

Because I have children in school age I have to be home at noon. We have our own route between my home and my partners’ home. We work as long as we need to collect enough cartons.

When we finish, we go and sell what we collected to the recycling company. They sort the cartons/papers we bring along their quality.

Then they give us between 2-25 Cents per kilo, depending on the quality of the paper/carton. Then we share the income.

He had to find a quick solution to feed his family, he says:

The people collecting paper in Afghanistan are called “Koghazjamkar”, which means paper collector. They are all poor people. They don’t have the money to buy wood or gas to cook food for their families. They don’t have money to warm their homes in winter. Sometimes they sell the papers to restaurants and homes who use them to make fire and cook.

Now I have become a “Kartonjamkar”, a carton collector in Europe. What can I do? When I work, I bring only enough money home to eat something that day. The next day, I have to go out again.

Yesterday, our trailer was stolen. Now we don’t know how to feed our families. We will have to pay another person who owns a trolley to lend it for a while.

In Afghanistan the father worked as truck driver. Now he is forced to do a job he knew only from the poorest in his home country:

We have additional expenses in medicine for our son who suffers from migraine. We spend around 30 euros a week only for that. Now that we got asylum, the organisation hosting us told us we had to leave our flat. They threatened us already twice. I tried to find a place for us in a camp in Athens, but they told me they cannot take us. I will try other camps. I also applied for HELIOS, but they said we should first find a flat and bring them the contract. With many difficulties I found a few flats, but for such a big family the prices were all around 500 Euros. The house owners wanted two rents in advance to sign the contract. Where should we find 1.000 Euros when we have already nothing to eat and soon we will be homeless too?”

The family have also to pay the necessary medicine for their sick child who and they are afraid that soon they will have to sleep in the streets:

Roya* (62) and Housseyn* (65)

The elderly couple Roya* (62) and Housseyn* (65)4 escaped Afghanistan with their 12-year-old daughter and the wife of their deceased son with her four minor children.

They work daily 8-10 hours, collecting together cartons in central Athens just to earn at best 18 Euros.

 It’s been two years they are in Greece and more than a year they got asylum. They hold subsidiary protection status and received their residence permits only three months before they expired.

After they applied and paid for the issuance of Afghan passports, the Taliban took over their country and the embassy in Athens closed and no more documents were issued.

At the same time their residence permits expired and they had to apply for their renewal.

Now they are waiting since more than eleven months for their papers.

“Our son was killed in Afghanistan.

We have been through so many dangers before and now we are suffering here in Greece.

It is about a year we live without any state support inside a camp in Athens region.

When they gave us the stamp that we got asylum on the island, they told us directly to leave (Moria camp). … Since then, we have no money.

We have nothing.”

The old lady can barely speak, while talking about her pain:

My husband and I are old people. We cannot do any other work. We have problems with our backs, with our knees. I have psychological problems and headaches.

This work made us sicker. We had health problems before, but they worsened. We struggle every day for many hours only to get some food. If it’s enough, or it’s not enough, we have to deal with it. The work is hard.

Every day I go from one shop to the other asking for cartons. We leave our trolley nearby. I carry the cartons I find on my paining head. Other times I tie them with a rope and pull them behind me down the streets to our trolley and throw them on top.

The money we earn is merely enough to feed the children. If we are sick, we have to stay in the camp and we don’t earn anything. So, no food”.

In the camp the family spent a year in a tent. They faced the cold and rain in winter; the high temperatures during summer. It’s only since a few months that they were given a place in a container and now they fear once again homelessness as their camp has been announced to close. They are forced to collect cartons on the streets, the woman continues:

“They said: ‘Don’t do this work!’ But what should we eat? The government should support us so we won’t be forced to collect cartons. But it doesn’t, so what should we do?

I went every day to the municipal police. I kneeled in front of them and asked them to please give our trolley back to us. We are an old couple. They said: ‘No. Go away!’

They worked very hard in the beginning in order to collect the first money to buy the trolley. Then it got stolen, she says. The municipality police of Athens confiscated the second one they bought:

* All names have been changed to protect privacy and security

“In Afghanistan there is war. People die. We had our own house, our own lives. We would not have left our country if we had been safe there. I hope for peace in Afghanistan, and everywhere. I hope the best for the young generation. My only hope for myself now is to find enough cartons for my family. These cartons give me a lot of stress and pain. And yet you see, our sole happiness now is when we find some cartons. Because that’s what we have to survive.”

With tears in her eyes the old woman concludes: