Aid and Attention Dwindling, Migrant Crisis Intensifies in Greece

By LIZ ALDERMANAUG. 13, 2016

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A Syrian refugee surrounded by abandoned tents and garbage on Thursday at Nea Kavala, a camp in northern Greece. Credit Eirini Vourloumis for The New York Times
NEA KAVALA, Greece — As her young children played near heaps of garbage, picking through burned corn cobs and crushed plastic bottles to fashion new toys, Shiraz Madran, a 28-year-old mother of four, turned with tear-rimmed eyes to survey the desolate encampment that has become her home.

This year, her family fled Syria, only to get stuck at Greece’s northern border with Macedonia in Idomeni, a town that had been the gateway to northern Europe for more than one million migrants from the Middle East and Africa seeking a haven from conflict. After Europe sealed the border in February to curb the unceasing stream, the Greek authorities relocated many of those massed in Idomeni to a camp on this wind-beaten agricultural plain in northern Greece, with promises to process their asylum bids quickly.

But weeks have turned into months, and Mrs. Madran’s life has spiraled into a despondent daily routine of scrounging for food for her dust-covered children and begging the authorities for any news about their asylum application. “No one tells us anything — we have no idea what our future is going to be,” she said.

“If we knew it would be like this, we would not have left Syria,” she continued. “We die a thousand deaths here every day.”

Syrian children waiting for lunch this month at a refugee camp southeast of Athens. Credit Eirini Vourloumis for The New York Times
Seven months after the European Union shut the doors to large numbers of newcomers, Greece remains Europe’s de facto holding pen for 57,000 people trapped amid the chaos. Many are living in a distressing limbo in sordid refugee camps on the mainland and on Greek islands near Turkey.

A year after the world was riveted by scenes of desperate men, women and children streaming through Europe, international attention to their plight has waned now that the borders have been closed and they are largely confined to camps. Anti-immigrant sentiment has surged since last year in many countries, especially as people who entered Europe with the migrant flow are linked to crimes and, in a few cases, attacks planned or inspired by the Islamic State or other radical groups. Neither the prosperous nations of Western and Northern Europe, where the refugees want to settle, nor Turkey, their point of departure for the Continent, are living up to their promises of help.

In visits to four camps around Greece — on the island of Lesbos, on the northern Greek mainland and outside Athens — migrants already seared by conflict and poverty voiced common concerns about inadequate food and health care. They grappled with squalid living conditions, fears over their children’s health and education, and the psychological toll of living in constant uncertainty.

 

An Afghan child on Friday at the crowded Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. The camp is brimming with Syrians, Afghans, Eritreans, Pakistanis, Kurds and other migrants. Credit Eirini Vourloumis for The New York Times
“Even if 1,000 children died here, people in Europe wouldn’t know about it,” she said. “Why did they close the borders when we need safety?”

A group of children chimed in. “We run from Daesh,” said Ahmed, 10, using the Arabic term for the Islamic State. He grabbed one of his playmates. “Look, this is Daesh!” he said, bending the boy over and pretending to cut his head off.

The ranks of those in limbo are most likely to grow despite a deal to resolve the crisis that took effect March 20 between the European Union and Turkey. While the number of migrants entering Greece has dwindled from nearly 5,000 a day last year, hundreds have started crossing the Aegean Sea again after the July 15 coup attempt in Turkey.

Few of the resources pledged by the European Union to assist the asylum seekers and process their applications have actually come through, leaving the Greek authorities struggling to cope with a daunting humanitarian and logistical challenge that has fallen from view in the rest of Europe.

Syrian children prepared pita on Thursday at the Softex camp near the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki. Credit Eirini Vourloumis for The New York Times
European Union member states have sent just 27 of the 400 asylum specialists and 24 of the 400 interpreters they had agreed to provide to process claims for refugees like Mrs. Madran. So far, 21,000 migrants have been registered for asylum; 36,000 have not. A union plan to ease Greece’s burden by relocating tens of thousands of asylum seekers to the Continent has also fizzled, with European countries taking less than 2,300 people.

The bottlenecks have overwhelmed many of the camps, especially on the Greek islands, where migrants arriving after the March 20 deal are supposed to be held until being deported to Turkey. That program has stalled because of legal challenges and because Greece must process each asylum application first. So far, 468 of the more than 10,000 people who have arrived since the deal took effect have been returned. Turkish monitors assigned to assist were fired by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey after the coup attempt against him.

One result is that on Lesbos, the main landing point for dinghies arriving from Turkey, the Moria refugee camp is brimming with Syrians, Afghans, Eritreans, Pakistanis, Kurds and others who landed after the accord. While the camp is organized by the Greek military and police, and filled with humanitarian aid workers, it has grown increasingly overcrowded amid a backlog of asylum claims and bids to enter the European Union relocation program.

As in Nea Kavala, migrants in Moria had no clue about their status.

“We just wait and we don’t know what to do,” said Abdullah Jalali, 40, an Afghan who had been stuck for five months.

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His family was crammed with 30 other people, including 11 babies, into a tiny container shelter. Nearby, Pakistani migrants lived outside beneath tarps held up with metal parking barriers — dark cages in the baking sun.

Mr. Erdogan has set off further alarms by hinting that the European Union deal could collapse by October should Europe fail to uphold a part of the bargain to grant Turkish citizens visa-free travel to Europe. The situation is critical enough that Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of Greece met with his cabinet on Thursday in Athens to discuss how to handle a renewed migrant surge.

For those who had been languishing in Greece even before the deal, Europe’s political tug of war threatens to make a precarious situation worse. Those who have money are continuing to turn to smugglers for passage to Germany or the Nordic countries. Some Syrians who fled violence for a haven in Europe have decided to return rather than face an indefinite stay in the camps.

In Nea Kavala, many of the nearly 3,000 migrants have struggled to adapt to their new world, a filthy, dust-blown wasteland built atop an abandoned airfield. Women looked after scores of children playing on an asphalt runway, and swatted flies from babies’ faces. Men chopped wood to make fires for cooking in tin drums. In some areas, the trash-strewn earth was scorched black where tents had burned when the fires got too near.

Syrian refugees passed the time by diving off cliffs this month at a camp near Athens. Credit Eirini Vourloumis for The New York Times
Nearby, at the Softex camp near the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, the situation was hardly better. Hidden in an industrial park along a pothole-covered road busy with trucks, a gravel expanse gave way to an abandoned factory filled with migrants. Behind it, rows of dilapidated green tents stood in the shadow of a gas plant that belched smoke in the sweltering heat.

Children with runny noses and mosquito bites smiled sweetly and clung to visitors, taking them by the hand and beckoning them to inspect the sordid alleyways between the tents. Almost no one had been processed for asylum. And some worried that recent attacks in Germany by two Syrian refugees would lead Europe to turn them all away.

“They are making us look like bad men, thugs, like Daesh,” said Ali Rahmeh, 58, from Syria. “We are not Daesh. We are human beings, and we’re talking about human rights.”

Even migrants housed in better conditions wavered between hope and despair. One hour southeast of Athens, 400 migrants, mostly Syrians, stay in bucolic wooden cabins under swaying pine trees near the sea off the coast of Cape Sounio. A former government vacation camp, it was closed during Greece’s economic crisis, but reopened recently to house refugees.

With a volleyball court, a space for cultural activities and a makeshift school, there are plenty of activities as people wait. Still, Hussein Alkhatib, 28, from Damascus said: “Our life is stuck. You have no job, no training, nothing.”

He and the others were expecting an appointment for a relocation interview, which the Greek authorities said would come sometime in September via text message. As a result, people scanned their cellphones constantly, and tried to keep busy in the meantime.

“Some people are starting to say, ‘Let me die now,’” said Mohammed Mohammed, 23, from Syria, a smart man with a business administration degree, who filled his time working as a translator. “Yes, we are lucky to be here. But this is not our home. We don’t want it to be our home.”

Follow Liz Alderman on Twitter @LizAldermanNYT

Dimitris Bounias contributed reporting from Nea Kavala, Thessaloniki, and Athens, and Nikolas Leontopoulos from Lesbos, Greece.

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