PATRAS: Pakistani migrants sit in a park near the port of Patras, southwestern Greece. — AFP

PATRAS: Khalid, a 13-year-old from Afghanistan, spends his days in squalor repeatedly trying to scale a metal fence separating him from the better life he dreams about at night. He is one of around 200 migrants camped next to the Greek port of Patras, dodging police patrols and irate truck drivers, attempting to board a boat to Italy after other countries shut down the overland route to northern Europe. "One day I will make it, I know," says the boy, who hopes to become an engineer in Germany or Switzerland.

After the migrant crisis of 2015-16, which saw more than a million people reach Europe from Turkey, the EU struck a deal with Ankara that dramatically reduced the number of new arrivals. The agreement coupled with some European countries essentially closing their borders to migrants has left around 60,000 people-mainly Syrian, Afghan and Pakistani-stuck in Greece with little prospect of employment. "There is no future (in Greece)," Khalid says. After leaving Kabul a year ago Khalid and his family reached the Aegean island of Chios by boat from Turkey.

Under the terms of the migrant deal, he should have waited in Chios to be returned to Turkey. But the camp there were so full he was instead transferred to mainland Greece. Fearing he would be forced to leave Europe, and lacking the 4,000 euros ($4,500) needed to pay a smuggler, Khalid made his way to Patras, a port city on the northwestern Peloponnese. He's now part of a 200-strong group of young men and children who roam the derelict factories opposite the port fence, constantly on the lookout for trucks bound for Italy in which to hide.

'Everybody is sick'

Khalid sleeps in an abandoned building with other young boys, mainly Afghans or Pakistanis-a hodgepodge of makeshift tents and sleeping bags strewn with rotting garbage. "Everybody is sick in here because it's not a good place," he says. According to NGO worker Georgia Tzanakou, there are 30 unaccompanied minors currently living in a single migrant centre in Patras. This includes "an eight-year-old boy who was left behind when his father caught a boat to Italy," she says.

"We found the child staying in precarious conditions inside a warehouse." The closure of the land-based route to northern Europe has led more and more migrants to return to the sea passage between Greece and Italy, either as stowaways in cargo ships or crammed into smuggling vessels. "This passage was never completely closed, but it was logical that when the road to the Balkans was open, very few would resort to it, because it is much more risky," according to a police source in Patras. Europe's border agency Frontex earlier this year deployed a patrol boat in the Ionian Sea and in April Greek coastguards escorted a migrant vessel in distress to the island of Kefalonia.

Hundreds arrested

For Khalid and his cohorts, trying to sneak aboard vehicles waiting to embark for Bari, Brindisi or Ancona is a full-time job. The migrants mix discreet nightime solo attempts with mass group raids, braving stones thrown by angry truck drivers and regular police stings. Even if they make it over the three-meter (10-foot) fence unscathed, many are discovered hiding in trucks during cargo checks. Most return home willingly, pocketing the occasional piece of fruit as loot.

Khalid says local police treat the minors leniently. "They don't hurt the little ones. They just say 'go away' (but) they send the older guys to jail sometimes." Although official figures are unavailable, local media reports suggest as many as 900 people have been detained in the port since the start of the year. For Khalid, the prospect of leaving Greece's stagnant economy for booming Germany or Switzerland will keep bringing him back to the foot of the fence. "It's a matter of luck. If you don't get lucky you can stay here for months," he says. "Anywhere is better than here." - AFP