Greece isolated as stranded refugees seek passage

Despite refugee camps being fully packed in Greece, signs are eastern EU states are preparing for its total isolation.

Refugees and migrants situation in Athens
Syrian refugees shout slogans during a protest march in the port of Piraeus in Athens demanding the opening of the borders [EPA]

Athens, Greece – The Facebook messages are desperate: “We are in the street. Sitting on earth. There is no place to sleep. I wish you come. When will you come here?”

Phoebe Ramsay, the Canadian volunteer receiving these messages, was on her way to find Sham, Doha and Wisam, three Syrian sisters whom she had helped on the island of Leros days before.

Mainland Greece is filling up with migrants and refugees so fast, that Ramsay had taken a government-chartered ferry to Athens along with them.

READ MORE: Refugees hang from tree as desperation grows

She was planning to drive to the northern Greek border, hoping to help people and find her charges somewhere on the way. They didn’t even know where they were.

The gradual but deepening restrictions on the movement of refugees and migrants through the Western Balkans is now bottling them up in Greece.

Earlier this year, authorities in Macedonia said they would only allow Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans through.

Last week, they took Afghans off the list.

Mounting dysfunction

More than one million refugees and migrants arrived by land and sea in the European Union in 2015, with the vast majority of them – 821,008 – landing in Greece.

This year, more than 100,000 people have so far crossed the Mediterranean to Greece and Italy, and 413 have lost their lives trying, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

As dysfunction over how to deal with refugees mounts within the EU, officials are beginning to admit that Greece will become a de facto repository.

“Greece needs to get prepared for a higher number of people not being able to move further,” Filippo Grandi, of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said in Athens earlier this week.

He was critical of the restrictions, some of which “go even against European Union rules and regulations and certainly basic refugee protection norms”.

The latest set of restrictions came on February 17, when Austria announced it would place a daily limit of 3,200 people entering its territory and accepting no more than 80 new asylum applications per day.

Slovenia, to its south, followed suit.

According to the IOM, over 62,000 people crossed the Aegean Sea in January, and 272 died on that route [AP]
According to the IOM, over 62,000 people crossed the Aegean Sea in January, and 272 died on that route [AP]

Yiannis Mouzalas, Greece’s migration minister, has been sounding the warning since the beginning of the year that the border with Macedonia will ultimately close.

“The government is preparing for this eventuality,” he told Greece’s Mega TV on February 8.

Two days later, he attempted to soothe public opinion.

“It’s a difficulty we can manage,” he said.

“We’re not going to have this tragic phenomenon of millions being trapped here. It’s going to be tens of thousands, I’d say 50,000 is a fair guess. If we’re ready and clear-eyed about what’s going on, it’s a number that the Greek people can handle.”

In an attempt to avoid crowds at the border, police have stalled convoys of coaches on the way, but this has created further problems.

Distressed people

On Thursday, a group of Syrians, frustrated with the waiting, pushed through a police blockade at Tempi in northern Greece.

Nearby in Katerini, a local grassroots group mobilised to bring food and water to about 300 distressed people parked for a day at a motorway services site.

Similar delays all along the motorway from Athens to the border have kept people in the buses for up to three days, according to the volunteers arriving to help them.

International volunteer groups take turns cooking lunch and caring for the refugees [AP]
International volunteer groups take turns cooking lunch and caring for the refugees [AP]

Further south, in the town of Volos, a bus driver apparently abandoned 60 passengers who had paid to go to the border.

All three of Athens’ refugee camps have been fully packed. The government has held passenger ferries it charters to bring in new arrivals on the islands of the East Aegean at the port until Sunday.

This is to allow the camps a chance to empty.

Some are left stranded at the port of Piraeus, where Greek volunteers have set up a shelter in a passenger terminal. Women put out washing on makeshift clotheslines.

Boys play football on the sprawling tarmac in front.

A mishmash of international volunteer groups take turns cooking lunch for the refugees.

On Friday, it was the turn of a Korean outfit called The Supreme Master Ching Hai Disaster Relief Team. Their slogan was “Be vegan, make peace”.

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But peace was the last thing on refugees’ minds.

Among the 300-odd people at the terminal was Samer Mersal, a surgeon’s assistant who managed an ophthalmological operating theatre in Damascus.

He fled after his apartment building was demolished by a Katyusha rocket fired by government forces.

Two of Mersal’s brothers have died in prison after being picked up by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s police. A third is missing. Asked why they were arrested, Mersal is passionate.

“Where you live. The reason [is] where you live. Not what you do or what you think. Just where you live. You live in a place where there’s al-Nusra, [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group] ISIL, and the Free Syrian Army, you have a problem. They take you to prison and only God knows where you are – only God and them.”

Yusuf, a 21-year-old, wanted to graduate from a high school in Iraq’s Mosul.

“There was no school for two years because of the war,” he explains. His sister, whom ISIL tried to recruit as a bride, accompanied him.

Unsurprisingly, many are impatient to move on while the border remains open.

Greece’s isolation

On Friday morning, two dozen men announced that they were going to take their families to the border while volunteers persuaded them that they were better off waiting in Piraeus for a couple more days.

The war in Syria may be the primary cause of the chaos that is engulfing Greece, but European policy failures are responsible for the extent of Greece’s isolation.

The UNHCR’s Grandi is critical of the lack of solidarity shown to Greece by other EU members.

“Europe, the EU in particular, which took what I believe were good decisions last year on how to handle this flow … is not implementing those decisions,” Grandi said, referring in particular to  “the very important decision taken many months ago that refugees arriving in countries at the border of Europe … would be assisted, would be supported by the EU in its entirety through a relocation of refugees across the different countries of Europe.”

In September, the EU pledged to take 66,000 asylum seekers off Greece’s hands in 2015-16. So far, only a thousand have been relocated.

On Thursday, Greece withdrew its ambassador to Vienna after Austria called a regional meeting with Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia to discuss the refugee crisis.

Greece's migration minister is openly concerned about what he calls 'unilateralism' within the EU [AP]
Greece’s migration minister is openly concerned about what he calls ‘unilateralism’ within the EU [AP]

Nikos Kotzias, Greek foreign minister, called Austria’s move an “unfriendly gesture, since it creates the impression that certain people wish to take decisions in our absence, which directly involve us”.

This Vysegrad group of four countries has spearheaded resistance within the EU of refugee policies such as relocation and the preservation of open borders.

Mouzalas, the Greek migration minister, is openly concerned about what he calls “unilateralism” within the EU, and the failure to quash it in previous council meetings.

“Although [other EU members] lampooned unilateralism, they said: ‘We understand the circumstances which led these [four] countries to it.’ This should worry us … because it should not be understandable that someone fights against European policy and undermines it.”

The signs imply, however, that eastern EU states are preparing for a total isolation of Greece.

On February 18, Austria’s chief of police met his counterparts from Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Macedonia.

They agreed to jointly profile refugees and asylum seekers gathering at Greece’s northern border, effectively creating an alternative to the Eurodac fingerprint and identity database Greece shares with the rest of the EU.

Once that is in place, the Greek border can essentially be treated as an external EU border.

Source: Al Jazeera