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Refugees stranded in Greece

Pavlos Zafiropoulos, Athens
March 27, 2016

The Greek government appears to be at a loss as to how to handle more than 50,000 refugees stranded in the country following the EU-Turkey deal. Pavlos Zafiropoulos reports from Athens.

Die Lage der Flüchtlinge nach dem EU-Türkei-Abkommen
Image: DW/P. Zafiropoulos

On the docks of Piraeus, standing a little distance away from a passenger terminal being used as a refugee camp, tears welled in the eyes of Andy Darby, a 68-year-old British retiree. Darby left his home on Crete about a month ago to assist the thousands of refugees arriving in Athens. He is now one of the key organizers of the makeshift camp at Gate E2 in Piraeus.

With large numbers of refugees now living for extended periods of time in the port, just meeting their basic needs is becoming increasingly difficult. "We are stretched very thin for food," Darby said, despite trucks arriving daily with donations. He has felt obliged to take on yet another task: explaining to the refugees that there is no hope for them crossing the border with Macedonia. They are stuck in Greece for the foreseeable future.

"Personally, I have deterred hundreds from going to Idomeni," Darby told DW, referring to the closed border crossing which continues to host over 12,000 migrants and refugees living in tents in muddy and squalid conditions. Despite the recent EU-Turkey deal to 'close' the so-called Balkan route, many refugees continue to hope against hope that the border will open again, through some miracle.

Convincing them otherwise has not been easy. Darby described how he would show refugee families videos and photos of the closed border crossing on his laptop to help them understand the situation. "We've had hard, very hard discussions with them. They cry, I cry. You tell them how it is and you kill their hope."

letter pinned to a tent copyright: Pavlos Zafiropoulos
Many refugees say they just want a fair stab at making it to a safe countryImage: DW/P. Zafiropoulos

Lack of organization

It has fallen to volunteers like Darby to provide information to refugees and migrants and deter them from heading to Idomeni. The Greek government is seeking to empty the camp. The situation is an indication of the overall lack of organization and mechanisms in place to implement the agreement between the EU and Turkey to stem the flow of refugees.

For now the authorities have focused their efforts on emptying the islands of the Eastern Aegean of refugees and migrants. The hotspot reception and registration centers are being changed into closed detention facilities. The plan is that from now on, any new arrivals will be held, processed and likely sent back to Turkey under the terms of the deal.

There are of course huge questions as to whether that will be legal or feasible, as the agreement requires that a large-scale deportation system be established almost overnight. Greece says it will be unable to process so many asylum requests and has asked the EU for 2,500 additional personnel to be sent to the islands to assist with the effort. But those officials have yet to materialize, leaving an overstretched Greek state facing an impossible task. Meanwhile, the UNHCR has said it will no longer provide assistance at the detention centers in line with its policy against mandatory detention of asylum seekers.

Desperation and frustration

For the approximately 50,000 refugees and migrants already in Greece these facts are far from promising. While they may be safe from being returned to Turkey for now - a possibility viewed by many with fear - there is little else to offer much hope. Many families are now homeless and have limited funds as they try to survive in a strange, financially strapped country. Their journeys to northern Europe - where many of them have family - are on hold indefinitely.

In the newly created camps throughout Greece, it has fallen to the largely volunteer organizers to manage the expectations of the refugees, who are slowly coming to terms with the fact that there will be no quick and easy route out of Greece. "Have they accepted it? No, not particularly," said Andreas Zambetas, a volunteer organizer of the newly created Ritsona refugee camp located about an hour outside of Athens. "Hope dies last. But they will have to."

The camp, which is now operating at capacity with about 850 residents, is arguably one of the better ones in the country. But even there, conditions are still very basic. Migrant and refugee families live in a forest clearing on a disused military base in unheated tents. Aside from meeting the basic needs of the residents, Zambetas is also anxious to keep the mood in the camp optimistic. He worries that the frustration felt by many may lead to ugly scenes that will only make the situation more difficult.

"I worry that there may be incidents that will cause Greek society to view [the refugees] differently. Then fewer volunteers would come and that would be disastrous for these people, as it is the volunteers keeping things together," he told DW.

A handful of refugees in the Ritsona camp were threatening to go on hunger strike, demanding the border with Macedonia be opened. In Idomeni, where frustrations are running far higher, NGOs were forced to temporarily remove their personnel from the camp when demonstrations escalated dangerously.

letter pinned to tent copyright: Pavlos Zafiropoulos
Refugees stuck in the camps and faced with possible deportation are resorting to desperate measuresImage: DW/P. Zafiropoulos

Brussels attacks add to refugee chaos

Volunteers at the camps have to convince the refugees that their best option of getting to northern Europe is to apply for political asylum in Greece and enter the EU's relocation program. Yet so far the implementation of that scheme has been pitiful. Only a few hundred out of a planned 66,000 refugees have been relocated from Greece since September. Information about the scheme from EU officials, the UNHCR and the Greek government has also been scarce to nonexistent for the refugees. This saps confidence even further.

In the Ritsona camp, for example, the organizers say that representatives from the UNHCR have come to the camp only twice for brief visits over the last two weeks. On neither occasion was there an organized attempt to brief the camp's residents about their options.

"I asked the [UN official] when we would be able to be relocated, but he said he didn't know," Ahmad, a 27-year-old refugee from Syria told DW at the Ritsona camp. When he pressed the official, "He told me to ask [UN Secretary-General] Ban Ki Moon," he said. At most camps, Greek government officials have been most notable by their absence.

Meanwhile, the Brussels terror attacks have cast a deep shadow over an already murky situation, once again propelling security concerns to the forefront of the debate over the refugee crisis. Ironically, many of the refugees share these same concerns - which is perhaps unsurprising given the fact that many of them are fleeing the violence perpetrated by the same groups thought to be behind the Brussels and Paris attacks.

"We respect [Europe's] rules," Salim, an Iraqi Yazidi, told DW at the Ritsona camp. "They should check everything - I respect that - so they know if you are IS or a refugee or not. We are running away; we left our homes and everything behind to get away from bad people and go to a safe country. So it's no good if the same bad people go there as well." As such refugees like Salim and his family are willing to be patient. "We just want to know what our future is. Are we going to stay here for one month, or one year?"

Others, however, prefer action to waiting and uncertainty. While DW was at the Ritsona camp, a group of seven young Syrian men headed out carrying all of their belongings. "We take a taxi to Athens and then go to Macedonia," Ahmed, 20, told DW. When told that the border was shut and unlikely to reopen, he merely shrugged and said that they already knew. "We will go," he said.

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