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Uncertainty over stranded refugees in Greece

Yanis Papadimitriou / gro
March 27, 2016

More than 50,000 refugees are stranded in Greece. Many there have begun to worry about what it might take to integrate them should they stay. Yanis Papadimitriou reports from Greece.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Fanis, the owner of a kiosk in Athens, was skimming the day's papers: Headlines about attacks in Brussels, refugees drowning in the eastern Mediterranean and, of course, his own country's continuing credit woes - long the subject of heated discussion. Right now, though, refugee policy is the main topic of public debate in Greece. Fanis is quite knowledgeable about the situation; his colorful kiosk is the neighborhood information point and meeting place. "It is actually strange," he told DW. "Many people here in the area show a great deal of understanding for the refugees, and they find what is going on in Syria awful. But, when it comings to taking in refugees in their own neighborhood, it is a different story."

Traditionally, Greeks are well-disposed toward Syrians. Many Syrians are Orthodox Christians, and after Greece lost the 1920s war to Turkey, large numbers of Greeks sought refuge in Syria. "I know that most Syrians do not wish to remain in Greece and would rather go to northern Europe, but I would not hold it against them if they stayed here," Fanis said. "Frankly, I do not believe that these people can really live in northern Europe," he added. "The cultural differences are simply too great - that is what I think, anyway."

Right now, many refugees are asking themselves whether they wish to stay in Greece. The question has become urgent now that the so-called Balkan route that led north from Turkey via Greece has been officially declared closed. Even if sending back refugees according to an agreement that the European Union made with Turkey works smoothly, 50,000 people who had arrived in Greece before the agreement went into effect have not been registered.

Fanis says refugees would probably be better off in Greece than elsewhere in EuropeImage: DW/J. Papadimitriou

Refugees need help

Greece's government plans to open more reception centers for refugees on the mainland and new centers on the eastern Aegean islands. Not everyone likes that idea. In the northwestern village of Doliana, turbulent clashes occurred last week when hundreds of residents protested the arrival of 210 refugees, blocking the road to their new lodgings. The protesters claimed that they were already full. They did not want to allow camps to be set up in their village, like the ones in Idomeni or on the port grounds in Piraeus. After long discussions, the refugees were first taken to the nearby city of Ioannina, the capital of the Epirus administrative region, and then, 24 hours later, they were sent to Giannitsa, in Greece's Macedonia region.

Egyptian-born Eloni Mohamad cannot understand such reactions. He is practically Greek: He has built a life as a construction worker over 22 years of living in Piraeus. When he can, the 52-year-old visits the tent settlement at the port of Piraeus and helps Arabic-speaking refugees. "I come here sporadically, and am surely not the only one works here for free," Mohamad told DW. "Whenever I do not have any work, I drop by and ask if anybody needs anything - whether I can help translate or help by contacting authorities," he added.

Griechenland Athen Stimmung gegenüber Flüchtlingen
Mohamad drops by the camp to offer translation services in his spare timeImage: DW/J. Papadimitriou

Right now, refugees need all the help they can get. Disputes have arisen in the overfilled camps, where supplies are short. Recently, refugees caused an uproar in Greece when they vociferously demanded the opening of the borders to let them out. Last week, there was speculation that the UN refugee commission would pull out of the village of Idomeni for security reasons. Doctors Without Borders temporarily stopped its work there in protest. But, a few days later, the situation was clarified; UNHCR staff member Petros Mastakas announced that his teams would not desert the refugees in Idomeni.

Griechenland Athen Stimmung gegenüber Flüchtlingen
The Red Cross does most of the heavy lifting in PiraeusImage: DW/J. Papadimitriou

It is mostly the Red Cross that attends to refugees on the port grounds in Piraeus. "We have been working here since May," said Ioanna Fotopoulou, the local coordinator. "In recent months, our volunteer doctors and nurses, in particular, are needed here in Piraeus." In the morning, the children are provided with a playground, she said. In addition to that, blankets, dry foods, 1,000 bottles of water and information material in several languages are distributed on a daily basis.