Volunteers help migrants at Greek crisis bottlenecks

Volunteers help migrants at Greek crisis bottlenecks

"Refugees welcome to Piraeus" – painted on a sheet of metal, the makeshift sign stands in the middle of Greece’s latest improvised migrant camp, set up right in the country’s main harbor.

Stretched to the limit by the influx of around a million people since last year, Greece is doing its best to respond to its role as the gateway to Europes greatest migration challenge in 60 years.

With Balkan borders progressively slamming shut, Piraeus has become a pressure valve between the Greek islands and the bottleneck on the country’s frontier with Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), where over 11,500 people are waiting to cross.

With each new ferry arrival from the islands, authorities at Piraeus struggle to share out refugees and migrants between available facilities elsewhere in the capital.

The tide rises and falls but inevitably, with around 1,000 people still coming from the islands every day, the port terminals are full of weary, hungry refugees at all times.

Some 3,000 people are now housed in four of the port’s terminals and an old stone warehouse building.

Inside the warehouse, volunteers have reconnected electricity so the refugees can charge their cellphones, a vital tool in keeping contact with distant families and mapping the road ahead.

Scores of Greeks of all ages have been bringing in water, food and baby milk and authorities have put out calls for more donations.

Eleni, a woman in her fifties, is part of a group handing out cartons of soup out of the back of a van.

"We made this at home and brought it along with bread," she says.

"Everybody is doing what they can to help out. There is an unbelievable wave of goodwill, of people offering to help," says Yiannis, a local volunteer from Piraeus helping to turn a warehouse into shelter for Afghans.

"We are not helping Iranians or Syrians or jihadists or Islamists… we are just helping human beings, we are helping people."

In the terminals, it is mostly the men who queue for food as the women mind and play with the children.

A young man in a wheelchair is taking in a bit of sun. His father explains that he lost both his legs in a bombing at Aleppo.

Over 30,000 refugees and migrants have become trapped in Greece following decisions in February by Austria and a succession of Balkan states to cap the number of people allowed through daily.

Neighboring FYROM has allowed fewer than 1,200 people through its borders in the last 10 days, junior interior minister for migration Yiannis Mouzalas said Thursday.

"We see a lot of families with small children, we see women traveling alone, older men, men with disabilities, people who need special assistance," said UNHCR representative Katerina Kitidi.

"The luckier ones sleep in tents but others bunk down simply on blankets."

The authorities aim to move refugees to relocation centres around Athens within 72 hours of arrival.

But refugees often refuse to go to the centres and prefer to seek passage directly to the border as soon as possible at any cost, government officials say.

"They said the border is closed, we are waiting but we will go to Macedonia, by another bus or another anything," says Rezan Mohammed, a Kurdish Syrian refugee from Idlib.

Athens has asked the EU for 480 million euros ($520 million) in emergency funds to help shelter 100,000 refugees. A senior UN migration official has warned that the numbers stuck in Greece will probably reach 70,000 in the coming weeks.

Conditions are harsher on Victoria Square in central Athens, where hundreds of Afghans have gathered in recent weeks, hoping to make contact with smugglers to get them through the border.

Until recently, Afghans were permitted into FYROM but this changed after Balkan states jointly tightened their entry policies in February.

On the square, a few hundred people are sleeping in the open with minimal access to sanitation.

Naplan, a journalist from Kabul, has been on the square for 10 days with her husband and two children.

Her youngest, aged just one, is already ill and coughing.

"We have not been able to find a doctor," she says.

"I think the situation is very hard, we need people to come and help immediately," says Louisa, a young volunteer trying to occupy Afghan children with games on the square.

"The good thing is that there are Greek people coming on their own, to help, independently. People like students, retirees, old people who have already gone through very difficult situations and they understand the situation these people are going through right now," she said.


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