More than 20,000 refugees are stuck in Greece because of the partial closure of borders decided by the authorities of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. In the Attica region alone the number of refugees exceeded 7,500. On Friday, 700 people landed on the island of Lesbos, saved by ships of the Greek Coast Guard and Frontex, while in the Dodecanese, other 482 “sea desperate” refugees are being temporarily housed.
These numbers are expected to grow over the next few days amid instability caused by the lack of European solidarity. Greece is hoping for a possible change of course, and the statements of the European Commission’s migration spokeswoman, Natasha Bertaud, had some weight. She pointed out the commission was preparing an emergency aid package to prevent Greece from having its own humanitarian crisis. And, a day after Greece recalled its ambassador from Vienna, the Tsipras government responded negatively to Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner’s request to visit Greece next week.
If she wants to visit, the Syriza government made clear, Austria would have to agree to revoke the multi-national agreements reached at the Vienna summit. That is, refugee families must be allowed to pass through the Balkans, and all E.U. member countries must respect their refugee allocation quota committments. Greece considers it absurd that a regional bloc, along with non-E.U. countries, have devised their own strategy, leaving Athens out of the dialogue and adopting decisions that hurt Greece.
Left on a limb, the Greek government and local communities are gearing up to meet immediate needs: Reception centers are multiplying in the various terminals of the port of Piraeus. The Minister of the Mercantile Navy, Thodoris Dritsas, for his part, announced that some of the refugees will remain in the reception centers of the Aegean islands, at least for the weekend, until new structures are set up around the capital. But they must be careful not to put too much strain on the islands, where citizens so far have shown a great spirit of solidarity with the newcomers.
Greece, in practice, is in a situation that is increasingly difficult to decipher in a logical way. It is paying a steep price for being the E.U. country closest to the crisis areas and the most easily accessible by boats of desperate people fleeing from war and misery. Meanwhile, the government, together with trade associations, have taken up a collection of basic necessities — clothes, non-perishable food and personal hygiene products. But it’s clear that the situation isn’t ideal because the refugees who land in Greece want to continue their journey, hoping to arrive to northern European countries.
On Friday, Tsipras met with Gianni Pittella, president of the Socialists and Democrats alliance in the European Parliament, who wanted to express solidarity with Athens. He stressed how unthinkable it would be to leave Greece alone to face a crisis of this magnitude. Tsipras, for his part, reiterated that “solidarity in Europe cannot end where the polls begin” and that the real key to address the problem lies in tackling the traffickers, who are active on the coasts of Turkey. Greece will forcefully make this point at a summit with Turkey on March 7.
Meanwhile, however, many refugees are starting to leave the reception centers to begin the long walk to Macedonia. Many are hoping to cross the border through mountainous areas, not controlled by the guards, in the middle of the night.
To underscore how absurd Europe’s attitude is toward refugees, according to Doctors Without Borders, one third of those in Greek territory are minors. In other words, much of the European Union has decided to slam the door in the face of children.