Dozens of anti-immigrant protesters shouted obscenities and threw pig heads at the entrance of a new Greek refugee camp in Veria on Friday evening as six buses loaded with refugees and migrants, mainly Syrians and Iraqis, arrived from Idomeni.
After initially blocking the bus from entering the former military barracks, which had previously housed about 400 migrants, Greek police descended and quieted the protesters. But the message was clear: Refugees are not welcome.
Starting Friday, new bus loads of refugees were evacuated from the improvised and disease-stricken camp at Idomeni, the Greek border town separated from the Republic of Macedonia by double fences topped with razor wire. There, more than 12,000 migrants have been waiting to cross the border for over a month.
Now, Greek authorities have made available three new camps with accommodations for up to 1,000 people: two in Katerini and one in Veria, each about 120 kilometers away from Idomeni. The Greek Army is managing the camps, providing tents and distributing food, blankets and clothes. There are plenty of toilets, and the Katerini camps are adjacent to a small playground.
“These are not detention camps,” said Christos Vlahos, the commander for the Katerini camps. “These are camps where the migrants are free to come and go whenever they want. They can leave without any problem.” He said any migrant is free to apply for political asylum at the camps and await the decision on their case.
Mark Good, head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Thessaloniki, said the agency worked with the Greek authorities and have certified the conditions at the camps and reviewed the process for asylum seekers. “It is right to move in that direction, dividing the migrants into multiple camps,” he said. “Idomeni is overcrowded and conditions are very bad.”
Meanwhile, migrants still in Idomeni are divided between those happy to leave the terrible living conditions and those who don’t trust this sudden solution. They fear the new camps will be even worse, that they may be detained or deported to Turkey. Many remain in Idomeni pleading for Macedonian officials to open the border.
“Migrants do not know that the situation here is better and that nobody will be brought to Turkey,” said one Greek air force officer. “If only they could see how organized the camp is, they would be lining up at the entrance.”
However, there remain some doubts about the efficiency of the new camps. Elisa, a Syrian asylum seeker, is with her three children in the camp in the coastal town of Kalivia Varikou, about 15 minutes by car from Katerini. The camp there, opened about a week ago and managed by the army, is for migrants arriving from Lesbos.
“A skimpy sandwich is not enough for a child,” she said. “We are hungry, and even the curtains are not adequate. We can cover their heads, but without a floor we sleep on the damp earth, and we are cold. The doctors come here only once in a while, and there is no one telling us how to request political asylum. We do not know what to do.”