ATHENS, Greece, Feb 27, (Agencies): Greece is fast becoming the “warehouse of human beings” that its government has vowed not to allow. Hastily setup camps for refugees and other migrants are full. Thousands of people wait through the night, shivering in the cold at the Greek-Macedonian border, in the country’s main port of Piraeus, in squares dotted around Athens, or on dozens of buses parked up and down Greece’s main north-south highway.
On Thursday, hundreds of frustrated men, women and children abandoned their stranded buses or left refugee camps, setting off on a desperate trek dozens of kilometers (miles) long to reach a border they know is quickly shutting down to them.
About 20,000 migrants were in Greece on Thursday, Defense Minister Panos Kammenos said. Of those, Macedonia allowed just 100 people to cross over from Greece’s Idomeni border area. Another 2,700 people, mostly Syrians and Iraqis, were waiting in a camp at Idomeni at nightfall, while another 1,000 people were stuck at a gas station in Polykastro, 17 kms (10 miles) away. Thousands more were heading north about 40 busloads of people were waiting along Greece’s main highway, while refugee camps in northern Greece and near Athens were full.
Greece is mired in a full-blown diplomatic dispute with some EU countries over their border slowdowns and closures. But to those on the road and to Greece, a financially struggling nation with a lengthy seacoast that is impossible to seal who is responsible for the border restrictions almost doesn’t matter. What matters is the result. And that result finds both Greece and the migrants caught in the middle between an increasingly fractious Europe, where several countries are reluctant to accept more asylum-seekers, and Turkey, which has appeared unwilling or unable to staunch the torrent of people leaving its shores in barely seaworthy smuggling boats bound for Greek islands.
Adding to the pressure is Greece’s financial predicament. The country has been wracked by a financial crisis since 2010 and still depends on an international bailout for which it must pass yet more painful reforms. Those have led to widespread protests, including blockades on the country’s highways by farmers who are furious at pension changes they say will decimate their incomes.
The vast majority of those reaching Greece, Europe’s main gateway for migrants, have been Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis fleeing war at home. “My only hope is to live in a safe place. That’s enough for me actually,” said 17-year-old Minhaj Ud Din Wahaj from Afghanistan’s Wardak province. “We have been in war since 40 years, so I have been raised in war. I was born in war.” In Athens, hundreds of migrants mill around central Victoria Square, uncertain of where to go next.
On Thursday, two men hanged themselves from a tree in the square but were rescued by bystanders. Police said the men, who were rushed to a hospital, were trying to draw attention to their predicament. In the north, nearly 400 people scrambled out of a former military base set up as a refugee camp in Diavata, near the city of Thessaloniki, and began walking the 70 kms (43 miles) to Idomeni on the Macedonian border. Dozens more set off on foot from buses stuck on the highway, where farmers’ blockades were hindering traffic.
Still more people fl owed into the country, with dinghies full of migrants arriving on Greece’s islands and hundreds more people piling on ferries heading from the islands to Piraeus. “We are escaping from war,” said Rana, an English teacher from Syria arriving in Piraeus. She would not give her last name to protect those she left behind. “Our house is destroyed, and salaries in some places stopped. … I think all the people, most of the people, seek the shelter and education for their kids.” But Europe appears increasingly unwilling to provide those basics.
On the weekend of Feb. 20-21, Macedonia stopped allowing Afghans through. Other countries further up the line appeared to do the same. On Thursday, even Syrians and Iraqis were being allowed to cross over from Greece only at a trickle. Nadica V’ckova, a spokeswoman for Macedonia’s crisis management department, told The Associated Press that Macedonia was restricting the entry of refugees to match the number leaving the country.
Bitter sniping has ensued between Greece and other EU members as Greece insists the EU’s 28 nations share the refugee burden equally. “Greece, from now on, will not assent to agreements if the proportionate distribution of the burden and responsibility among all member states is not rendered obligatory,” Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras told Parliament on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, four Balkan countries on Friday announced a daily cap on migrant arrivals, deepening the crisis gripping the European Union, and Brussels warned of disaster if an upcoming summit with Turkey fails.