As EU and Turkey haggle, refugees caught in limbo in Greece

On the Greek side of the sealed border with Macedonia, thousands of refugees wait in a makeshift refugee camp for the route to Europe to reopen.

Boris Grdanoski/AP
An Iraqi woman washes clothes in a makeshift refugee camp at the northern Greek border post of Idomeni on Thursday.

Just weeks after Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said he was determined not to allow his country to become a “warehouse for souls” – a vast holding center for refugees thwarted on their journey to northern Europe – that is exactly what it is beginning to resemble.

Macedonia, the country’s northern neighbor, has slammed shut its frontier to refugees and migrants, leaving 12,000 stranded in a muddy encampment on the border, near the village of Idomeni.

Another 30,000 asylum seekers are scattered around the country, some housed in huge tent cities set up by the Greek army, others living in dilapidated venues left over from the 2004 Olympic Games. The vast majority are Syrians and Iraqis, fleeing war in their home countries.

Meanwhile, hundreds more refugees arrive every day on the Greek islands after paying smugglers to ferry them across the Aegean Sea on small boats and rubber dinghies from the nearby Turkish coast.

In a concerted effort to tackle the worsening crisis, European Union leaders are meeting in Brussels on Thursday and Friday to discuss a plan under which some refugees would be resettled in Europe while others would be deported back to Turkey.

But the proposals are fraught with practical, political, and legal challenges.

The plan relies on reaching a complex deal with Turkey, which has demanded as the price of its cooperation 6 billion euros in aid, visa-free travel for its citizens within the EU, and a speeding up of the long-stalled talks on its future membership in the 28-nation bloc.

Many European leaders are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of accommodating the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at a time when it has been accused of gross human rights abuses against political opponents and journalists.

The UN and human rights organizations have branded as immoral and illegal a plan under which Turkey would take back all refugees arriving in the Greek islands, in exchange for which the EU would accept for resettlement Syrian refugees languishing in camps in Turkey.

The deal may be acutely unpalatable to many, but EU leaders say that without cooperation from Turkey, the exodus of asylum seekers will continue and Greece will be left to deal with the problem itself.

"There is no alternative. We have to come to a deal," said Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte on Thursday. "If not, the situation in Greece will remain very serious, come to a crisis. It is crucial that we come to a deal now and tomorrow."

Life in a makeshift camp

The humanitarian situation worsens by the day, particularly in the sprawling, makeshift camp at Idomeni, just yards from the razor-wire fence that separates Greece from Macedonia.

A week of rain has turned the fields in which the refugees have pitched their flimsy tents into a morass of mud and puddles.

Two weeks ago, the refugees were able to forage for wood in the surrounding countryside. But with trees and hedgerows stripped bare, they are now burning sodden blankets, old clothes, and even plastic in an attempt to keep warm. The fires create an acrid, toxic haze over the encampment.

The mostly Syrian and Iraqi refugees choose to remain living amid the mud and squalor because they believe unfounded rumors that have swept the camp that EU leaders are about to reopen the borders.

“The rest of my family crossed over into Macedonia two months ago but I was stopped because I had a problem with my papers,” says Mouad al-Hassan, from near Damascus. He has scars on his neck, face, and chest from a bomb blast he said occurred when Russian aircraft in support of the Assad regime attacked his village.

“Now my papers are in order so I’m going to wait for as long as it takes until they open the borders,” says the young man, who has already spent 27 days living outside, a few hundred yards from the heavily-guarded frontier.

There seems to be no prospect of that happening. EU countries, particularly those on the Balkan migration route along which a million people passed last year, have declared unambiguously that the path is closed.

'We are just waiting, waiting'

Conditions are now so dire at Idomeni that aid workers say it is worse than the notorious “Jungle” camp in Calais, where thousands of migrants have been living as they try to cross the English Channel into Britain.

“It’s a sea of mud here,” says Caroline Anning of the British charity Save the Children. “In the Jungle, you at least had shanty structures of wood and corrugated iron where people could get a hot meal and even watch a movie. But here there’s nowhere for people to get warm and dry. They are living in tiny tents. There are 15 newborn babies in just one small section of the camp.”

Save the Children has called the EU’s proposal to deport refugees from Greece while taking in those stuck in Turkey is “completely arbitrary and illegal” because all of them have the right to claim asylum.

As EU leaders thrash out the details of the Turkey deal, boats keep arriving on the shores of Aegean islands such as Lesbos and Chios, and refugees make their way north to the Macedonian border, desperately hoping for a change of heart by Europe.

“We are just waiting, waiting,” says Delshad Jaron, a computer studies graduate from the Kurdish part of Syria. “It’s very hard – I haven’t had a shower for 50 days. But we have no other plan.”

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