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From Sprint to Marathon


With the Macedonian border closed and the EU relocation mechanism making slow progress, thousands of refugees are stuck in Greece. The government is doing what it can – with limited means.


© REUTERS/Alexandros Avramidis

It’s only April, and already the port of Piraeus is sweltering. The rest of Athens hovers around the comfortable mid-20s Celsius, midway through the first month of a typical Mediterranean spring; but here, with little shade save for the scattered warehouses and docked cruise ships, it feels twenty degrees warmer, a draining summer come early.

Since February, thousands of refugees – mostly from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq – have turned the port into a makeshift camp. The first who arrived intended to stay only a few days. They were coming from the islands, from camps in Lesbos, Kos, Samos, and Chios; the port was one stop along a route that typically stretched from Syria or Iran through Turkey, and would continue north through Macedonia and the Balkans, ending in one of the more hospitable European countries further west – Germany, ideally.

Now, many of them are stuck. The so-called “Balkan route” is closed, leaving 52,000 refugees stranded in Greece. Many are awaiting spots in other European countries under the Emergency Relocation Mechanism; others have decided to apply for asylum within Greece itself. As of April 21 the UNHCR counted over 3200 people living at Piraeus, a site with an official housing capacity of zero.

The camp is calm for the moment – Anne Wollter, a volunteer from Sweden, says that conditions have been relatively good in general, and that volunteer organizations from across Europe have been pitching in to maintain order, distributing food, clothes, and tea daily. And despite the duration of their stay, the refugees have maintained their hope that their situation will improve. “It warms my heart to see they really have their pride. They are dealing with this situation in a very, very good way, I think.”

Nevertheless, Piraeus is indicative of the problem now facing the entire country: arrangements meant to accommodate people for no more than a few nights – if that – have by necessity become semi-permanent settlements, tent cities where thousands are living for months at a time, and even with the combined efforts of the Greek government and a huge volunteer presence, capacities are being pushed to their breaking points.

For Greece, there is no end to the unfolding crisis in sight; what began as an emergency must now be treated as a way of life.

Snakes and Scorpions

“This is all bullshit.”

A Greek volunteer at Idomeni, who asked to remain anonymous, has just been handed a flyer distributed to the refugees by Greek authorities. In it, they are promised improved accommodations and better access to medical care in a new camp being run by the army.

Idomeni, an hour and a half north of Thessaloniki and a stone’s throw from the Macedonian border, has become an icon of the refugee crisis. Like Piraeus, it was once a brief stop on a longer route; the meager accommodations provided were meant to house migrants for a night before they continued their journeys, and not more than two thousand people at a time.

Now, however, with the Balkan route closed, over 10,000 people are camped along the railroad tracks of the defunct passenger train station. Many have been here for weeks, some months – and while international aid agencies, including the UNHCR, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) have contributed some semblance of infrastructure, most people sleep outdoors in small camping tents.

“I mean, there’s maybe like a handful – like, literally, you can count them on your hand – of camps that do actually have good conditions.” Generally, though, the Greek volunteer says that many of the camps are unhygienic, even unsafe. They often lack running water and electricity; refugees at Idomeni complain of problems with snakes and scorpions.

The camp is peaceful the day we visit, but there have been frequent clashes with the Macedonian police, who have fired tear gas canisters and rubber bullets at refugees and migrants attempting to cross the border. A significant part of the problem is the absence of reliable channels of information: Many of the confrontations have begun with rumors that the Macedonian border would be opening or that European asylum rules had changed. Since many of the refugees here have already had negative experiences with the police and the military – if not in Greece, then in Turkey – they are reluctant to trust what they are told. “They don’t trust the Greek military … they don’t trust the military in any country, they’re fleeing from the military,” the volunteer says.

Military Take-Over

Nevertheless, the military is now largely responsible for managing the situation. Deputy Defense Minister Dimitris Vitsas has been put in charge of a ministerial team managing the crisis in Greece. He predicted in March that it would take two years to work through the backlog of applications for the relocation mechanism, in part because other European countries have been reluctant to accept transfers; as of April 11, only 615 people out of a planned 66,000 have been moved. “Some countries have governments that seem to be driven by xenophobia … In my personal view, it’s a disgrace,” he told the Financial Times.

The military is now racing to build capacity to house what it now assumes will be a long-term presence, constructing new camps and working to move people out of the improvised settlements they currently occupy. The refugees living in Piraeus, for example, along with a group living at the out-of-use Ellinikon airport, are set to be moved to a military camp at Skaramagas; transfers had already begun when we were there. Meanwhile, in the north, authorities would like to clear out Idomeni, along with nearby camps, many of which are unsuitable for long-term habitation.

Caroline Haga, an emergency communications delegate for the IFRC, has been in Greece for six months now. “It’s been an evolving process: we came in, we tried to help wherever we could, and now we’re looking to have a bit more stabilized help, because we’re moving into a phase where it’s more stable.”

A few months ago the Red Cross was working primarily to provide emergency support – supplying first aid for boat landings, for example. Now they are working to improve conditions at the camps.

Precarious State

And of course none of this is happening in a vacuum: the influx of refugees comes on top of five years of economic crisis in Greece. Other European Union member states are providing financial aid – on April 19, the European Commission announced that it would be providing €83 million to NGOs in Greece, on top of the €181 million Athens has already received since 2015 from the Asylum, Migration, and Integration Fund and the Internal Security Fund – but Greece’s economy remains in a precarious state. Unemployment was already hovering around 25 percent (and nearly 50 percent among the youth), and the refugee crisis will cost the country an estimated 0.3 percent of Greece’s GDP in 2016, 20 percent of which is derived from the country’s tourism industry. The threat of Grexit has never quite gone away. In March Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras expressed doubts about Greece’s ability to cope under the additional pressure.

Put simply, of all the countries in Europe, Greece was the one least prepared to handle tens of thousands of people when they were only passing through, and now it is forced to make plans to accommodate them for months, if not longer.

“We are there to help, like of course all the other major organizations, but the government has taken a lot on itself if you think that they’re managing the camps and the army is managing the camps,” says Haga. “I mean, they have their own problems, with how many homeless you see when you spend time here in Athens.”

In Athens, two models represent what the future of the refugee crisis may look like.

In an industrial neighborhood in the west of the city, surrounded by car repair shops and lumberyards, sits the Eleonas camp, a compound of containers and prefabricated houses with room for 1500. The camp has relatively modern sanitation facilities, even Wi-Fi and air-conditioning. The camp is an open facility – though there are police at the entrance, refugees are free to come and go.

A month ago, Lefteris Papagiannakis was appointed deputy mayor of Athens for migration and refugee issues. While the Ministry of the Interior is in charge of camp administration, Papagiannakis – who was born in France, and worked for the European Parliament – has been visiting to help with coordination.

“There has been a big change, because, you know, we were used to having people staying two or three days and then leaving – not only in this camp, in Greece in general. But now, with the borders closed, we have people who are basically stuck. So that changes a lot.”

Eleonas has been designed as a longer-term residence. There is a playground for children and facilities for psychosocial support. Perhaps more surprisingly, refugees of different nationalities are housed together – something rarely done in other camps. Papagiannakis sees this as one part of a larger mission. “You can see a house with Sudanese, Malians, Afghans, and whatever … you can see two families, one from Afghanistan, one from Yemen … We’re mixing things up. Because this is the way to go. It’s a small process of integration.”

Many of the people will be here for the long haul – they are waiting on the EU relocation mechanism or their Greek asylum application coming through. Papagiannakis is planning for the refugees at Eleonas to be there at least through the fall. “The biggest plan is school in September – school for refugees. I think that’s the most important thing that we should do … Kids, you know, they will learn Greek in a month.” Indeed, some children in the camp already have.

With the help of the Athens municipal government – and, as usual, a number of NGOs and volunteer organizations – the Eleonas camp is trying to achieve something rarely attempted elsewhere in Europe: it is planning for a Greek future in which today’s refugees play a role. “Its a blessing, we have to use that. [The children] know Arabic, they know English. We will have a population that will talk, will speak four or five languages.”

A Five-Star Hotel

Meanwhile, in Exarcheia, a downtown neighborhood that has historically been a hot spot for hard left political activists – in 2015 then-Minister of Finance Yanis Varoufakis was attacked by anarchists at a restaurant here – a group of refugees, mostly Syrians and Afghans, have taken over an abandoned school and turned it into a new kind of camp. Here, about 400 refugees manage food, medical, and translation needs themselves, reaching decisions by vote – without NGOs.

Hussein, a refugee from Syria, arrived here two months ago. “Everybody does what he wants, so we depend on ourselves and organize ourselves. We have teams here: cooking teams, communications teams, technical teams, translation teams, and kids team.”

Many of the refugees living in Exarcheia today spent time in Idomeni – including Hussein, who staged a hunger strike while there. “It’s good here, like a five-star hotel if you compare it with Idomeni … or Piraeus.”

What comes next for Greece depends largely on forces outside of its control – on events in the European Union, in Turkey, and, of course, in Syria. A great deal hinges on the EU-Turkey deal finalized in March: If the numbers arriving over the Aegean can be reduced, Greece might be able to handle the refugees living within its borders now. If that becomes impossible, it is difficult to say how long the country can hold out.

Papagiannakis is not optimistic. “I don’t think we have a few months. I think things will go very fast. The deal will explode, because you cannot work with that deal. And I don’t know what will happen next. Because imagine – now we have 100 people, 150 people, coming in every day to the islands, and we can receive them, document them, apply for asylum, etc. Imagine in a day 2000. The system will explode. Its not possible for the system to sustain that many people.”

“You have people who need to go elsewhere. People who flee war. Nothing can stop them. They put their children in boats that can sink any minute. We call them crazy. We do not understand why they are doing this. Other mothers say, Oh, I would never do this to my kid. Are you sure?”

Read more in the Berlin Policy Journal App – May/June 2016 issue.