The refugee camp in Idomeni is to be cleared - but is alternative accommodation in Greece really ready yet? Panagiotis Kouparanis reports from Hersos, where authorities are setting up a new camp.
The Greek Defense Ministry gave the go-ahead for foreign reporters to visit the new refugee camp in the northern Greek town of Hersos this week. It didn't take long, once people knew that DW reporters and a Finnish journalist were in the group - half an hour later, about 50 children and teens showed up, chanting "Merkel, Merkel" and "Germany, Germany" in Arabic, and holding cardboard signs that read, in English: "We demand humanity."
Speaking before the German parliament on Wednesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had urged the refugees stuck in Idomeni to move on to the newly created camp, arguing that it was "much better." Everyone who has seen pictures from the Idomeni camp knows that it doesn't take much to be better than that mud-infested misery.
The Hersos camp is named for the nearby town. In Greek, "Hersos" means fallow, or underused - which is exactly what this former military compound of 6.5 hectares (16 acres) was for a long time. At the end of February, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Gavranopoulos was ordered to erect a refugee camp on the premises.
The soldiers began to set up tents in the early morning hours of February 28. Before the day was over, 1,159 refugees had moved in. The next day, 699 showed up, and yet a day later, there were another 129 newcomers. By Thursday this week, 3,815 refugees were registered at the Hersos camp. Three out of four have Syrian papers; the others have Iraqi documents. No more than 4,800 people can be housed in the new camp.
Until very recently, the refugees came to Hersos straight from Athens or the northern Greek port city Kavala, says Lieutenant Colonel Gavranopoulos. Few came from Idomeni, he says, adding that asylum-seekers had actually left Hersos for the Idomeni camp.
Upon arrival in Hersos, refugees first have to present the registration papers they received at one of the hotspots on the Greek islands. Once the data is entered, they are handed a kit with basics, including a blanket and a sleeping bag. Next, they are assigned a place to sleep, either in one of the two large tents set up by the UNHCR or in one of 400 eight-person tents. That's when it gets uncomfortable for the asylum-seekers. These tents have one major flaw: They don't have ground sheets. That means that the refugees have to lie on the sometimes muddy bare ground.
Rumor has it that not the military, but disaster control authorities provided the tents - but the refugees couldn't care less under whose jurisdiction the tents fall. "We aren't animals; we are human beings," Amar from Syria bristles.
Not everything, however, is deplorable in Hersos. At first, army cooks made the meals, but now caterers provide three meals a day. A cleaning service looks after the 27 toilets and five showers. Electricians are still busy setting up lamps on the three central paths that run through the camp. A mesh fence surrounding the camp will be up soon, too.
German and Finnish doctors from the International Red Cross are scheduled to relieve the Greek Red Cross, which has until now been responsible for health care at the refugee camp. Kari Vanamo, a children's surgeon from Finland, is waiting for medical equipment to arrive from Germany and Finland so four doctors can offer basic health care beginning next week.
Gradually other aid organizations, including the UN's refugee agency UNHCR, are expected to take up their work in Hersos. Currently, the camp depends on volunteers from the town of Kilkis, who belong to a coordination group that organizes the refugee work.
Organization is a must, as Hersos is only one of three refugee camps in Kilkis county - the other two are Polykastro and Idomeni. The county actually shelters almost half of all the refugees in Greece.
Currently, the authorities are trying to house families with toddlers and pregnant women in private homes in the area, according to Stephanos, one of the volunteers. The Greeks are very willing to help, he says, adding that many residents' grandparents were refugees themselves, forced out of Turkey in the 1920s. In fact, the volunteers have the ambitious goal of housing all the refugees with Greek families, Stephanos says. "We've already started."
Cooperation with the military is totally unproblematic, Stephanos says. Lieutenant Colonel Gavranopoulos agrees. The army cooperates with volunteers and NGOs all over the world these days, he says, for instance in UN, NATO and EU military missions: "No problem."