05.03.2016
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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.

120,000

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.

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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.

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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.”