Can Europe Make It?

Trapped in the new Greek archipelago with no way out

According to the UNHCR, some 46,000 refugees are stranded in mainland Greece - trapped in an archipelago of camps that stretches from the northern borderlands to Athens.

Isabelle Merminod Tim Baster
4 May 2016

Idomeni camp, Greece. Photo supplied by authors.‘It’s all lies,’ Massoud (not his real name) taps angrily on his smartphone screen; there are dozens of failed calls to the Skype address of the Greek Asylum service. In Greece you register an asylum claim by Skype. Massoud is from Syria and has been in Idomeni camp for 2 months and 10 days.

People have been blockaded in Greece since Macedonia shut its border with Greece entirely for refugees on 9 March this year. At the same time many people are finding it impossible to lodge asylum applications in Greece - and therefore have no chance of ‘relocation’ to another EU country. The EU plan to relocate refugees to other EU countries appears to be bogged down.

By 17 April, UNHCR said some 46,000 refugees are stranded in Greece in an archipelago of camps from Athens to the Macedonian border in the North. Meanwhile, in the islands the deportations to Turkey under the ‘one-for-one’ deal between the EU and Turkey started on 4 April.

The core of the Idomeni camp at the Macedonian border are the four tents marked with the logo of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) nearest to the gated railway crossing. Originally, we were told, these tents were meant to be a roof for a day or two before people set off across FYROM (Macedonia) to the northern countries of the European Union. Now they are crammed with people keeping their place in a queue which goes nowhere.

Around ‘the gates’ - a freshly erected barbed wire fence blocking the railway which previously allowed people to cross the frontier - thousands of small tents gather with some 10,000 people waiting without hope for Europe to remember the values it once upheld.

Children and other vulnerable people

In Idomeni, the mother of Mahde Essaa shows a doctor’s note which explains that her son suffers from ‘high inter-cranial pressure,’ and has had brain surgery. She and her 11 year old son live in one of the vast tents at Idomeni camp at the border - the noise is constant, there is little privacy. She is in despair. She is not registered with the Greek authorities so there is no chance of relocation out of Greece.

In Anagnostopoulou camp by Thessaloniki, Fadi Saifo, a 22 year old Syrian lies paralysed, stretched out on a bed. His father says they did a small operation to his neck in Turkey which improved things a little. He should be a prime candidate for the EU’s relocation policy (which is meant to be moving vulnerable people out of Greece), but nothing seems to be happening.

In a nearby tent in the same camp, 10-year-old Zainab Khwan lies without movement on a bed. Her parents say she is very underweight for her age, has heart problems and a kind of early onset rheumatism. She spent three days in a hospital in Thessaloniki but is now caught in this camp. Her parents have no idea if she will be relocated to another country in the EU.

In a carefully worded but highly critical report in January UNHCR says of the EU’s relocation policy that, “Some Member States appear to have…a long list of preferences and additional limiting conditions related to language skills, vulnerabilities, etc.

UNHCR states that member states of the EU - who should be focusing on vulnerable people in the Greek camps - may have, “explicitly excluded vulnerable cases.”

As of April 21 some 860 people had been relocated out of Greece to other EU member states. The target for relocation from Greece to other EU member states is 66,400.

Unable to register an asylum application with the Greek authorities

In another part of Greece, we found Ahmed (not his real name) an Afghan in the camp at the old Elliniko airport just outside Athens. We speak surrounded by fading Olympic Airways logos and ‘Arrivals’ signs. He says, “We thought the [Balkan route] was open and everybody can come and cross the border.”

He continues, “The date we arrived to Greece was 17 February. We went to the border, to Idomeni, and then we spent like eight or nine days there and then they sent us back here.”


Piraeus camp, Greece. Photo supplied by authors.He has been in Athens for a month. He says the only way you can apply for asylum, “is through a Skype ID and it is [open] like two days per week and only one hour for each day. So you can imagine…how is it possible for us to do that?”

He claims that no one in the camp here at Elliniko has been able to register through Skype. UNHCR estimates there are some 4,000 people in three camps around the old airport.

The European Council on Exiles and Refugees (ECRE) states in a February report that: “Skype slots to book registration appointments in Attica are only available three hours per week at best…or even one hour per week for certain languages…It is highly problematic that…it is necessary to have successful access to Skype in order to be able to book an appointment to register an asylum application.”

And what now? Ahmed says: “First they said that everybody will be deported back to Turkey. Their cases will be checked by the specialists in Turkey. But now they say that other people who came after the 20th March [when the ‘one for one’ deal with Turkey started], they will be deported but they didn’t say anything about us.”

Lawyers? “No one. Personally myself I have tried a lot because they gave us contact details of some free lawyers that can assist us. I have tried to make appointment with them more than ten times but their only answer is that, ‘we are busy, we don’t have lawyers now, call back.’ So I gave up.”

“Nobody knows actually what will happen,”

We could not obtain a comment from the Greek Asylum Service.

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData