Not much better than the misery of the camp near Idomeni: Greece’s official refugee camp Nea Kavala. Photo: Björn Kietzmann

Since the route through the Balkans has, in effect, been closed, thousands of migrants have become stuck in Greece. The humanitarian crisis is intensifying – with unforeseeable consequences. Salinia Stroux und Chrissi Wilkens, members of PRO ASYL’s project RSPA, have sent this report.

At the clo­sed Greek-Mace­do­ni­an bor­der, thou­sands of peo­p­le are cam­ping in the most mise­ra­ble con­di­ti­ons. Time and again refu­gees risk their lives by attemp­ting to move onwards to Cen­tral Euro­pe. “Why aren’t they just going back?” the cynics ask, imply­ing that this would even be an opti­on for the refu­gees in Ido­me­ni. And yet the con­di­ti­ons in the Greek camps whe­re the refu­gees are sup­po­sed to be pla­ced are hard­ly dif­fe­rent to tho­se in the bar­bed-wired mise­ry of Ido­me­ni. Despe­ra­te and wit­hout shel­ter, the refu­gees’ situa­ti­on has been extre­me­ly pre­ca­rious for years, and the clo­sing of the rou­te through the Bal­kans, forced through by Aus­tria and imple­men­ted by Mace­do­nia, has only ser­ved to esca­la­te the situa­ti­on. Thou­sands of refu­gees are in dan­ger of beco­ming trap­ped in Greece.

Thousands are already without shelter

Accor­ding to cur­rent esti­ma­tes, more than 27,000 refu­gees are stuck in some 18 loca­ti­ons in Greece. As a result of the clo­sure of Greece’s bor­der with Mace­do­nia, the govern­ment in Athens expects that more than 100,000 migrants could get stuck in Greece in the next few days. In an attempt to regu­la­te the dis­tri­bu­ti­on of migrants on the islands and the main­land, it has char­te­red spe­cial fer­ries. But even after the trip from the Aege­an Islands to Pirae­us or Kava­la, thou­sands camp in the open air – in the har­bour, or along the motor­way and in the cent­re of Athens.


refu­gees and more have arri­ved in Greece sin­ce the begin­ning of the year, almost two thirds of whom are women and children.

Others attempt to walk hundreds of miles to reach the Greek-Mace­do­ni­an bor­der, with them are peo­p­le in wheel­chairs, new­ly-borns, and old peo­p­le car­ri­ed on their children’s should­ers. “In Ido­me­ni, in Athens and other parts of the coun­try peo­p­le camp out in the open air, wit­hout access to essen­ti­al ser­vices. The situa­ti­on is get­ting worse by the day,” Marie Eli­sa­beth Ingres, head of Méde­cins Sans Fron­tiè­res in Greece, repor­ted to RSPA.

In the past few days, local resi­dents and aut­ho­ri­ties have attempt­ed to feed hundreds of migrants. Wit­hout this, the situa­ti­on would be far more dra­ma­tic. On the islands, in Athens and in Ido­me­ni, vol­un­teers work around the clock in soup kit­chens, fee­ding up to 5,000 peo­p­le at a time. All food sup­pli­es come from dona­ti­ons. But not ever­y­whe­re do the local resi­dents show soli­da­ri­ty with the migrants. On Febru­ary 28, the­re were two arson attacks on two plan­ned refu­gee camps in nor­t­hern Greece.

Military camps for refugees all over Greece

The govern­ment attempts to alle­via­te this dra­ma­tic cri­sis by ope­ning new tran­sit camps. On the one hand it is about new “hot spots”. In addi­ti­on to the five hot spots in the Aege­an Islands, a fur­ther five are plan­ned for the nor­t­hern regi­ons of Kil­kis and Gian­nit­sa. On the other hand, so-cal­led “relo­ca­ti­on camps” are being estab­lished in Diava­ta, Schis­to, Elai­on­as and Elli­ni­ko. The­se are huge camps, usual­ly instal­led in for­mer bar­racks by the mili­ta­ry and sur­roun­ded by bar­bed wire.

Migrants wai­ting at the Mace­do­ni­an bor­der are asked to move to the offi­ci­al Greek refu­gee camps. But con­di­ti­ons the­re are not much bet­ter than in the mise­ra­ble camp near Ido­me­ni, and migrants worry that they may get stuck the­re for a long time. The­r­e­fo­re the majo­ri­ty attempts to somehow make pro­gress towards Wes­tern Euro­pe. Pho­to: Björn Kietzmann

Alre­a­dy the exis­ting camps – in camp­si­tes, port depots, Olym­pic sta­di­ums and con­tai­ner depots – are all over­c­row­ded. Many refu­gees are afraid that the mili­ta­ry-run mass camps may be tur­ned into pri­sons. Last week, refu­gees in the new­ly estab­lished camp in Diava­ta near Thes­sa­lo­ni­ki tore down fen­ces and set off on foot towards Ido­me­ni. Sin­ce last Mon­day, jour­na­lists no lon­ger have access to the camps. Greece is in a sta­te of emergency.

Public spaces in Athens are turned into tent cities

On Athens’ Vic­to­ria Squa­re, which for some years now has been a mee­ting place for refu­gees exchan­ging infor­ma­ti­on and plan­ning their onward tra­vel, the atmo­sphe­re has been ten­se sin­ce last week. Fami­lies and their babies are lying on filt­hy blan­kets on the cement flo­or. Peo­p­le are begging for food and water, while NGO workers run around despera­te­ly. “Bread, water, milk and blan­kets. That’s the only help we can give them. What else can we do?” says one of them.

Many refu­gees have spent the past few nights here with their child­ren. The­re is no more space for them in the refu­gee camps or other pro­vi­sio­nal recep­ti­on struc­tures. Refu­gees and aid workers report cata­stro­phic and unac­cep­ta­ble con­di­ti­ons: hun­ger, thirst and rot­ten food sup­pli­ed by the mili­ta­ry. “Every day Vic­to­ria Squa­re is fil­ling up afresh,” says Muba­rak Shah, mem­ber of RSPA. “The­re are not only Afgha­nis here, but also Syri­ans, Iraqis, Ira­ni­ans and refu­gees of other natio­na­li­ties. They’re all hoping that the bor­ders will open again soon. Local resi­dents and shop owners are get­ting work­ed up, and we are worried that very soon we might see fur­ther racist assaults.”

The govern­ment tri­es to set up more emer­gen­cy shel­ters in places such as parks and other smal­ler set­tings. Howe­ver, becau­se of sys­te­ma­tic fai­lings at the admit­tance and inte­gra­ti­on stages, most refu­gees do not want to remain in a cri­sis-shaken coun­try whe­re the unem­ploy­ment rate is curr­ent­ly hig­her than 24%. They lea­ve the mass camps whe­re they have been pla­ced – some on foot – and go eit­her back towards the bor­der, or to Athens, whe­re they try to orga­ni­se their onward journeys.

Unhea­ted tents, part­ly under water. Even the­se makes­hift camps will soon be over­c­row­ded if EU count­ries con­ti­nue to seal off Greece. Pho­to: Björn Kietzmann

The human trafficking business is booming due to closed borders

The human traf­fi­cking busi­ness in Athens’ cent­re has just rea­ched a new high point. By now, migrants pay bet­ween 3,000 and 4,000 Euros to be taken across the bor­der, eit­her through Albania’s moun­ta­ins or by boat from Wes­tern Greece to Ita­ly. Just a few days ago, when the bor­der was still open for Afgha­ni refu­gees, the pri­ce was as low as 2,500 – 3,000 Euros. But with incre­asing demand pri­ces have shot up. The poli­ti­cal decis­i­on to shut the rou­te through the Bal­kans will force ever more refu­gees to seek out ille­gal and hence ris­kier and more expen­si­ve rou­tes to Cen­tral Europe.

A drastic escalation of the humanitarian crisis is expected

Sup­port­ers and human rights orga­ni­sa­ti­ons in Greece are alar­med. “If the bor­der with Mace­do­nia isn’t ope­ned for Afgha­nis very soon, Greece’s capa­ci­ty to recei­ve migrants will be exhaus­ted within eight days,” a spo­kesper­son from MSF war­ned as ear­ly as Febru­ary 23. Among the migrants stuck in Greece the­re are many fami­lies, child­ren and minors.

»We’re fed up with tra­vel­ling on ille­gal rou­tes and ris­king our lives. I mys­elf have seen five dead bodies on my jour­ney from Kabul to Athens.«

M., Refu­gee from Afghanistan

The situa­ti­on could soon esca­la­te again. It is esti­ma­ted that on avera­ge 2,000 refu­gees reach the Greek coast every day, most­ly in unsea­wor­t­hy ding­hies and fishing boats. Sin­ce the begin­ning of the year, more than 120,000 refu­gees have arri­ved in Greece, almost two thirds of whom are women and children.

Those fleeing war cannot be stopped by fences

Back on Vic­to­ria Squa­re, Maria Gali­nou, a mem­ber of the Inter­na­tio­nal Sal­va­ti­on Army, is try­ing to orga­ni­se medi­cal assis­tance for an Afgha­ni girl who has con­trac­ted pneu­mo­nia during the crossing through the Aege­an Sea. Regar­ding the tigh­tening of the bor­der con­trols she says: “Irre­spec­ti­ve of how many hurd­les are put in people’s ways, they will find other, more dan­ge­rous, rou­tes to safety.”

A few met­res away, a young man cal­led M. is sit­ting under a tree tog­e­ther with seve­ral Afgha­ni fami­lies. They have spread blan­kets on the ground and have tried to crea­te some shel­ter from the rain by han­ging cut-up pla­s­tic bags in the tree’s bran­ches. They have been slee­ping here for more than four days. Every day the 23-year-old Afgha­ni man tri­es to get infor­ma­ti­on on the situa­ti­on at the bor­der. He wants to get to Ger­ma­ny, but wit­hout the help of traf­fi­ckers. “I don’t have money for that, and apart from that, we’re fed up with tra­vel­ling on ille­gal rou­tes and ris­king our lives. I mys­elf have seen five dead bodies on my jour­ney from Kabul to Athens. We want legal rou­tes crea­ted for us.”