The European Union has urged member states to dramatically step up efforts and admit thousands of refugees in the coming months, as scores of people remained stuck in a sprawling camp on Greece’s northern border in deplorable conditions.
At least 13,000 people – many fleeing war-torn countries in the Middle East and Africa – have been braving rain, wind and cold temperatures for days at the makeshift camp in Idomeni, hoping border closures throughout the Balkans will be lifted.
Dimitris Avramopoulos, the European migration commissioner, told reporters on Thursday that at least 6,000 people a month should be relocated to other EU member states in order to help solve the worsening crisis.
The EU adopted a scheme in September to relocate 160,000 Syrian, Iraqi and Eritrean refugees from Greece and Italy – but only 885 people have been moved to other member states since then.
“If relocation does not work, then the whole system will collapse,” Avramopoulos warned.
He added that several member states have not yet offered to take a single asylum seeker.
His comments came after Austria’s interior minister said on Thursday that the Balkan refugee route will remain closed permanently and that people should not be given false hope for passage.
Johanna Mikl-Leitner told reporters in Brussels on Thursday that “the most honest thing is to tell the refugees: It’s impossible to get through the Balkan route anymore. The Balkan route is closed.”
Some 35,000 people have been stranded in Greece since Austria and several Balkan states began closing borders, barring access to thousands of refugees hoping to settle in places in northern Europe.
In Idomeni, near the Greek-Macedonian border, scores of refugees scuffled for free food and water on Thursday, struggling to seize eggs and bread thrown from a truck at the tent city which has become their temporary home.
Aid workers are warning that infectious diseases could soon spread due to the unsanitary conditions in the makeshift camp.
People are huddling inside tents to get away from the rain as the ground has turned into mud.
“It’s very difficult; it is very cold for us and we don’t have clothes or food,” Imran, a young Afghan refugee boy stranded in Idomeni told Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid.
“We are in here too … we have to [be] in here because of the Afghan war, [we] can’t go back. [We] want borders open – because of [the] cold [we] can’t live here.”
More than 40 percent of those at the camp are children, according to estimations by aid groups on the ground.
Babies, some just weeks old, lie down on cardboard boxes. Scores suffer from respiratory conditions.
“My daughter and my wife are crying all the time for two days,” Magir Asfour, 42, who fled fighting in the Syrian city of Aleppo, told Reuters news agency.
“Our tent is wet. We didn’t sleep last night. It flooded.”
More than 130,000 people have reached Europe from Turkey this year.
In 2015, nearly 1.3 million people applied for asylum in the EU – that is more than double the number from 2014.
More than 3,700 people died trying to make the perilous crossing across the Aegean Sea from Turkey into Greece.