Secret Lives

Stuck in Limbo, These Muslim Men Are Turning to Prostitution, and Grappling with Guilt

Inside a refugee camp in Greece, where Afghans take desperate measures to feed their families — and their hashish habits.

Stuck in Limbo, These Muslim Men Are Turning to Prostitution, and Grappling with Guilt

Nine months ago, Tabaan, a 33-year-old refugee from Afghanistan, was sitting on a bench in the park separating the Elliniko detention camp in Athens, Greece, from the nearby coast, when a man approached him. “Fifty-five he must have been,” gauges Tabaan, who lived at the camp until it was evacuated earlier this month. “He nodded at me. I followed out of curiosity. Then, he hid behind a tree and took off his underwear. ‘Come, I’ll pay you,’ he whispered, waving a 20-euro-note in my face. I’d run out of money, and needed my hashish dose desperately, so I did it. Some pay 30, even 50.”

Tabaan is one of several Muslim men from the camp — all completely straight, they insist — who have charged male clients for sexual encounters. Their names have all been changed here for their safety. This took place in a park less than 100 yards from the Elliniko camp where they and 700 other migrants and refugees, mostly from Afghanistan, were living. They used the money to buy their children’s snacks or new SIM cards; they use alcohol, psychedelics and intense prayer to soothe feelings of shame, sorrow and sin.

“I have known about what these men are doing for long now,” a former NATO soldier and refugee leader from the camp said in an interview this spring. “The Greek authorities of the camp, the other refugees and the Danish Refugee Council, which is the main NGO working at the camp, had no idea whatsoever.”

Elliniko camp, located in the coastal suburbs of Athens, about six miles south of the city center, served as the international airport of Athens until 2001. For the 2004 Olympics, a series of athletic facilities were constructed in Elliniko and the rest of the southern suburbs (a hockey field, Taekwondo stadium, beach volleyball venue and many others); they were later left to erode. The Greek government put a number of these abandoned, high-cost buildings to use as detention camps after the refugee crisis exploded in 2015. Poseidonos Avenue running in front of the camp, as well as the secluded coves and beaches that dot the area, soon became a magnet for prostitution. “Several men visited the park even in daytime looking for sex,” the former NATO soldier continued. “I don’t condemn these men; I am not God, but they have become slaves of their addictions and desperation.” 

Used condoms in the park near the Elliniko camp where people go to perform sexual acts for money.

Omran is a 31-year-old former truck driver from Afghanistan. He’s a tall, broad-shouldered man with a paunch. “I take two to three men a day, usually day after day,” he says. “I’ve been doing it for six months now. I feel embarrassed, but have a shower right after. I charge them 20 to 30 euros, it depends.”

“It all started one night. I couldn’t put up with the boredom of the camp. I was also really horny,” he continues. “I followed a friend. ‘Here, go fuck this man, you’ll enjoy it,’ he told me. I didn’t. The man was like 60 years old. He was foul. I turned my head the other way.”

The 60-year-old stranger was not only his first paid homosexual experience, but his first sexual experience ever. Before coming to Greece, well over a year ago, Omran worked as a driver and supplier for NATO bases in Afghanistan, and had a girlfriend with whom he had never been intimate as her family decided to marry her to a richer and safer groom.

Omran’s commercial transactions with NATO nearly cost him his life; the Taliban didn’t like him supplying their enemies with juices and foodstuff, a highly lucrative but immensely dangerous job. After a string of threats, the Taliban shot Omran in the head.

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“If I am deported – which will most probably happen if I don’t find the money to get the heck away from here – the Taliban will kill me,” he says. Despite this, he has not put aside much of the money he makes as a prostitute to get smuggled out; instead the bulk of his budget is spent on alcohol and the marijuana he recently started to experiment with.

“I know drugs and sex with men are sins, and I fear Allah’s punishment, but can you show me the way out?” he asks.

Tabaan sees things in a less guilt-ridden way. “God will forgive me. At the end of the day, if he didn’t want me to sin, he would give me money to get out of this shithole camp,” says the antsy, dark-haired man.

Tabaan came to Greece a year ago with his wife and their children. In Afghanistan, he worked at a farm for “very little money.” Two years ago, he and his family fled his area’s misery for Iran, but ended up bitterly disappointed.

“There is no respect in Iran for Afghani refugees, to whom they even deny the right of education,” he says. An Irani smuggler was adamant that Germany’s lush welfare benefits and future opportunities for his children were well worth the $12,000 he charged to get Tabaan and his family out. But his dreams of Germany were shattered, like so many others, by the March 2016 European Union-Turkey deal, which shut down the Balkan route leading to north Europe, so Tabaan and his family landed at a Greek detention camp.

“They say this country is beautiful, but I’ve seen nothing of its beauty in this jail they shoved me in,” he says.

Eventually, Tabaan’s wife learned how he was getting the money that fed their children. On the spot, she took her kids and left him and the Elliniko camp. There are rumors that she’s planning to file for divorce. Tabaan is in shock and afraid, but continues his encounters with men, as he now needs more cash to buy more drugs – he recently took to shisha, which he was told is even better at helping you forget your problems than hashish. 

Jan A. Ali, Senior Lecturer in Islam and Modernity at the School of Humanities and Communication Arts at Western Sydney University, speculates that the reason men are resorting to prostitution in refugee camps despite Islam prohibiting any kind of sexual intercourse outside the institution of marriage is only sheer desperation. “Male prostitution is not unique to a particular culture or faith-based community,” Ali says. “Generally, the practice is a result of economic hardship and is quite an old phenomenon. All world religions prohibit prostitution and it is considered a grave sin. There could be a myriad of reasons for these men and I guess they are all related to survival for them as well as their families in such a harsh and inhumane environment. One thing we can be sure of, male prostitution in this context, is definitely not about pleasure but every bit of it is about pain and desperation.”

“My first time lasted ten minutes, behind a tree. I closed my eyes, didn’t see his face. He was old and really aggressive, demanding. Not that I was afraid or anything, no, nobody can hurt me, I am too dangerous,” Mati says. “But, I cried all night. If I had a house and a job, even if they gave me one million bucks, I wouldn’t do it [again] for the world.”

In Afghanistan, Mati was a shopkeeper, dealing in mobile phones, but sold off his property “to go somewhere safe.” Germany or France would be his best bets, smugglers told him.

About seven months ago, when Mati was broke and desperate for money to buy food for his children, stuck in the dismal fate of the post-EU-Turkey-deal reality for refugees and migrants, Tabaan let him in on his secret source of income.

Mati attended an asylum interview in Athens earlier this spring, which was rejected. “If they deport me and Islamists find out what I did, they’ll slit my throat,” he thought to himself and fled the camp. Last time he was heard from, he was at Patras port, waiting for the smuggler’s green light to hide under the wheels of a truck ready to embark on an Italy-bound ferry. His wife and children are still at the camp, waiting for him to reach France first, give it a shot for asylum there and, “Allah willing,” take them along.

“He is dreaming a pipe dream,” the camp’s refugee leader said cynically. “If he does not get arrested in Patras, he will not escape deportation once he sets his foot in France. Then, he will be sent to Turkey, or, even worse, straight back to Afghanistan. If he were Syrian, he would stand a chance, but, now, no. He is doomed though I don’t blame him for trying. We, Afghani refugees, are all doomed one way or another.”

Faced with the highest influx of migrants and refugees since World War II, some of the richer destination countries are speeding up deportation procedures. Afghan people are the second largest group of people seeking protection and asylum in Europe (after Syrians); the EU recently drafted a plan to deport 80,000 Afghan asylum seekers back to their country.

In the meantime, Greek authorities have evacuated the former departure lounge, hockey field and baseball pitch of the Elliniko camp. The roughly 700 Afghani refugees still there have mostly been sent to new facilities for refugees that the International Organization for Migration set up in Thiva, a town about 45 miles outside of Athens. The camp leader believes that this move proves that Greek authorities consider Afghan refugees a scourge and threat to the city fabric. Upset though he is, he believes the only ones who will benefit from the mandatory transfer to the rural area of Thiva, away from the sinister lights of the big city, are the men who have been “selling their body” here.

Ramesh, a brawny 17-year-old with mussed-up hair, is from northern Afghanistan. His mother died in childbirth, and he says the culture was unforgiving of motherless children, so he and his father left for neighboring Iran. At the age of 12 Ramesh started working in a factory. He thinks his father, who died five months ago, always saw him as nothing more than a helping hand.

“I forgive him, it’s a sin to badmouth a dead person,” he says. “I forgive him.”

Ramesh is the least experienced prostitute of all. Three months ago, a friend brought him to the park and told him about “some old men who give money.”

Ramesh.

“I needed the money,” he says. “I was ashamed, but needed the money to buy my SIM card, and an old man gave me 50 euros that night. But I took a shower and scrubbed my body to death afterward. I could not sleep.”

The young man attempted to earn some money this way again, but his powerful aversion to the shame of his acts gave him suicidal ideas. He attempted to take his life some two months ago.

“‘You fuck old men and buy alcohol,’ one buddy of mine told me. He was joking ’cause he does the same, but I felt disgusted, mad,” he says. “I went outside of the camp, and cut my throat at least four times with a scalpel blade.”

“My next memory is of me lying down in an ambulance, and a paramedic keeping pressure on my neck,” he says. “Doctors told me I only cut the windpipe. I bitterly regretted it, but it was too late. On the morning of the following day, I borrowed money from a nurse, took a taxi, and returned to the camp. When other refugees saw me, they reprimanded me, telling me that I shouldn’t have done that, that I am too young.”

Ever since that almost-fatal night, Ramesh resolved to not do “God’s disgrace” more than once a week for his SIM card, cigarettes, and whiskey. Like the other refugees, he has been moved on to other Greek camps now that Elliniko has been closed. Regardless of their location, most of the men interviewed for this story continue to have sex with local men in exchange for money.