This article was published by Al Jazeera International.
The Facebook messages are desperate: “We are in the street. Sitting on earth. There is no place to sleep. I wish you come. When will you come here?”
Phoebe Ramsay, the Canadian volunteer receiving these messages, was on her way to help Sham, Doha and Wisam, three Syrian sisters whom she had helped on the island of Leros days before.
Mainland Greece is filling up with refugees so fast, that Ramsay had taken a government-chartered ferry to Athens along with refugees. She was planning to drive to the northern Greek border, hoping to find her charges somewhere on the way. Not even they knew where they were.
The gradual but deepening restrictions on the movement of refugees and migrants through the Western Balkans is now bottling them up in Greece. Earlier this year, authorities in former Yugoslav Macedonia said they would only allow Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans through. Last week, they took Afghans off the list.
As dysfunction over how to deal with refugees mounts within the European Union, officials are beginning to admit that Greece will become a de facto repository.
“Greece needs to get prepared for a higher number of people not being able to move further,” said the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, speaking in Athens earlier in the week. He was critical of the restrictions, some of which, he said, “go even against European Union rules and regulations and certainly basic refugee protection norms.”
The latest restrictions came on February 17, when Austria announced that it would place a daily limit of 3,200 people entering its territory, and accept no more than 80 new asylum applications per day. Slovenia, to its south, followed suit.
Greece’s migration minister, Yannis Mouzalas, has been warning since the beginning of the year that the former Yugoslav Macedonian border will ultimately close. “The government is preparing for this eventuality,” he told Greece’s Mega TV on February 8. Two days later he attempted to soothe public opinion. “It’s adifficulty we can manage,” he said. “We’re not going to have this tragic phenomenon of millions being trapped here, that people are discussing. It’s going to be tens of thousands. I’d say 50,000 is a fair guess. If we’re ready and clear-eyed about what’s going on, it’s a number that the Greek people can handle.”
In an attempt to avoid crowds at the border, police have stalled convoys of coaches on the way, but this has created new problems. On Thursday a group of Syrians, frustrated with waiting, pushed through a police blockade at Tempi, in northern Greece.
Further south, in Katerini, a local grassroots group mobilised to bring food and water to some 300 distressed people parked for a day at a motorway services site. Similar delays all along the motorway from Athens to the border have kept people on buses for up to three days, according to volunteers speeding to help them.
Further south still, in the town of Volos, a bus driver apparently abandoned 60 passengers who had paid to go to the border. “The bus driver just dropped them off and left,” says Ramsay.
All three of Athens’ refugee camps have been packed to bursting point. The government has held passenger ferries it charters to bring in new arrivals on the islands of the east Aegean in port until Sunday, to give the camps a chance to empty.
Some are left stranded at the port of Peiraieus, where Greek volunteers have set up a shelter in a passenger terminal. Women put out washing on makeshift clotheslines. Boys play football on the sprawling tarmac in front of the building. A mish-mash of international volunteer groups takes turns cooking lunch for the refugees. On Friday it was the turn of a Korean outfit called The Supreme Master Ching Hai Disaster Relief Team. Their slogan was, “Be vegan; make peace.”
But peace was the last thing on refugees’ minds. Among the 300-odd people at the terminal was Samer Mersal, a surgeon’s assistant who managed an ophthalmological operating theatre in Damascus. He fled after his apartment building was demolished by a government Katyusha rocket.
Two of Mersal’s brothers have died in prison after being picked up by President Bashar al Assad’s police, and a third is missing. Asked why they were arrested, Mersal is passionate. “Where you live! The reason [is] where you live. Not what you do, what you think. Just where you live. You live in a place where there is Al Nusra, there is Da’esh, there is Free Syrian Army, you have problem. They take you to prison and only God knows where you are, only God and them.”
Yusuf, a slim 21 year-old with fine features and a thin beard circling his jawbone, just wanted to graduate from Mosul high school in Iraq, now under ISIL control. "There was no school for two years because of the war," he explains. His sister, whom ISIL tried to recruit as a bride, accompanied him.
Unsurprisingly, many are impatient to move on while the border remains open. On Friday morning, two dozen men announced that they were going to take their families and march them to the Macedonian border. Volunteers persuaded them that they were better off waiting in Peiraieus for a couple more days.
Failure of European policy
The war in Syria may be the primary cause of the chaos that is engulfing Greece, but
European policy failures are responsible for the extent of Greece’s isolation.
The UNHCR’s Grandi is critical of the lack of solidarity shown to Greece by other European Union members. “Europe, the European Union in particular, which took what I believe were good decisions last year on how to handle this flow... is not implementing those decisions, and in particular the very important decision taken many months ago that refugees arriving in countries at the border of Europe... would be assisted, would be supported by the EU in its entirety through a relocation of refugees across the different countries of Europe.”
In September, the EU pledged to take 66,000 asylum-seekers off Greece’s hands in 2015-16. So far, a thousand have been relocated.
On Thursday, Greece withdrew its ambassador to Vienna, after Austria called a regional meeting with Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia to discuss the refugee crisis. Greek foreign minister Nikos Kotzias called Austria’s move an “unfriendly gesture, since it creates the impression that certain people wish to take decisions in our absence, which directly involve us.” The so-called Vysegrad group of four countries has spearheaded resistance within the EU to refugee policies such as relocation and the preservation of open borders.
Mouzalas is openly concerned about what he calls “unilateralism” within the EU, and the failure to quash it in previous European council meetings. “Although [other EU members] lampooned unilateralism, they said, ‘we understand the circumstances which led these countries [Hungary, Austria, Slovenia, the Czech Republic] to it.’ This in my view should worry us… because it should not be understandable that someone fights against European policy and undermines it.”
The signs are, however, that eastern EU states are preparing for a total isolation of Greece. On February 18, Austria’s chief of police met with counterparts from Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and former Yugoslav Macedonia. They agreed to jointly profile refugees and asylum-seekers at the Greek-Macedonian border, effectively creating an alternative to the Eurodac fingerprint and identity database Greece shares with the rest of the European Union. Once that is in place, the Greek border can essentially be treated as an external EU border.