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On the brink

Omaira Gill, Athens
March 2, 2016

As the UNHCR warns of an impending disaster in Greece, those on the ground dealing with the crisis day-in-day-out feel it’s unfolding already. Omaira Gill reports from Athens.

Griechenland Flüchtlinge in Athen Familie
Image: DW/R. Shirmohammadi

The UNHCR's stark warning that Europe is on the brink of a self-made humanitarian crisis may not have fallen on deaf ears, but to many on the ground it's a bit like preaching to the converted.

Greece has borne the brunt of a refugee crisis entering its second year and many people in the country are wondering if the humanitarian crisis which the UN fears has not in fact already manifested itself.

Anthonios Sklavenas, 31, is a radiographer at the General Hospital of Mytilene, Lesvos. His job doesn't normally involve him dealing with the morgue, but he recalls one macabre instance when he was called upon to help a forensics team identify a dead refugee. "The forensics team came to us and said 'You have to come to the morgue and take a few x-rays because we found an unidentifiable body.' The body they brought us had half a hip and one leg. We couldn't even tell if it was male or female. We carried out some tests and concluded it was a girl of about 13 who had drowned, and the fish had got to her," he told DW.

man helping carrying girl in water Copyright: picture-alliance/AP Photo/S. Palacios
A humanitarian disaster is unfolding before Europe's eyesImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/S. Palacios

Grisly end

It's a grisly end to a desperate journey, the culmination of a short life robbed of the dignity of safety even in death. The body of this girl joined another 300 or so stored in a refrigerated container in the hopes of one day identifying who she was through DNA samples.

Data from the UNHCR shows that so far 410 people have died this year in their attempt to reach Europe. Out of the 131,724 people who arrived via the Mediterranean in January and February this year, 122,637 landed in Greece, almost the entire total for the first half of 2015.

The graveyards have long since run out of space, and now there is a fresh dilemma. Europe is shutting its borders, trapping an estimated 25,000 refugees and migrants in Greece. According to Greece's Minister of migration, Yiannis Mouzalas, that number will soon rise to 70,000. While Europe bickers about what to do, they keep arriving, and it is left to NGOs, volunteers and citizens to deal with the fallout.

Four aid workers, 8,000 refugees

Jolean Colpaert is Medecins sans Frontieres' head of medical activities in Idomeni. Her team consists of one doctor, one nurse and two translators to tend to approximately 6,000 - 8,000 people stuck at the border to Macedonia which remains shut. "All the waiting areas are overwhelmed. We also keep seeing the same patients back that are not really improving, cases which should only last for three days lasting for a week or more. The conditions they live in are not ideal at all."

She says that the situation at the border is at breaking point, with a lack of shelter and food leading to people fainting, cardiac incidents, epileptic seizures due to people not being able to get the medication they need and diabetics who can no longer control their condition because of inadequate food.

"The setting we have is really basic primary health care. You can compare it to a primary health setting in the middle of Africa," she told DW.

Lack of hygiene has led to an explosion in gastrointestinal conditions and scabies, but Colpaert says their biggest concern is the children. "They just need food. The biggest problem is all the infants under one year who can't be breastfed because the mothers are not eating enough so they don't produce milk."

She says what's needed is a heated camp of at least 10,000 capacity plus secondary medical facilities close by. "If we try to send them to hospital they don't go because they can only take one caregiver with them. They are scared to be separated from their families in case the border opens."

Ketty Kehayioylou, Communications and Public Information Officer for UNHCR Greece, says the crisis is reaching unmanageable proportions.

"Country after country is imposing new border restrictions and inconsistent practices which are causing unnecessary suffering and risks being at variance with UN international law standards. What is happening to Greece today is not something that Greece can manage alone."

Relocate the relocation plan

She refers to an agreement to resettle around 66,000 refugees which on the ground has manifested itself in only 1,539 actual places offered and only 325 refugees having so far been resettled from Greece under the programme.

"Europe should make the relocation programme work and increase regular pathways for admission of refugees from countries neighboring Syria. This will help the overall management of the situation," she told DW.

people sleeping in harbor terminal copyright: Reuters/A. Konstantinidis
How much longer can the port of Piraeus accommodate the growing number of refugees?Image: Reuters/A. Konstantinidis

Meanwhile, Greece's main port of Piraeus has turned into an enormous waiting area. Around 1,500 people with nowhere to go because of the shut northern border take aimless walks to pass the time. Some push buggies. There are hundreds of small children everywhere and volunteers try to keep them occupied with various activities. Many sleep inside the terminal building.

At the main gate to the port, a few bewildered tourists weave their way through groups of refugees sitting near the bus terminal. With nowhere to go, they simply wait. No one in the group of around 100 dares leave. "We came here this morning at 2:00 am," says Ali from Damascus. "We need to go to Macedonia. Some people said they would take us for 25 euros ($27), others for 50 euros."

They are scared of becoming stuck in Greece and want to go to Idomeni despite advice to the contrary, ready to join a line that is currently some 7,000-people long. It's a sign of their desperation that they don't dare break their journey in case the borders along their route shut completely. "We know nothing," Ali tells DW, "We must go to Macedonia. Can anyone help us?"

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