[United Society, by Max McClellan] The day after my visit, the Greek police cleared Idomeni of approximately 1,500 asylum-seekers and migrants and brought them back to Athens on buses.
The refugees are being housed in three temporary accommodation sites in Athens, but we know from first-hand reports that two of these sites are over-crowded and lack suitable toilets and bathrooms, safe family spaces and medical facilities. Unsurprisingly, tensions are running high as the refugees’ hopes of making it into northern Europe have been dashed, and there have been reports of fights breaking out.
One site has already been shut down by the government and a second is scheduled to close on 17 December so a sports event can be held there. It is unclear where the refugees and migrants will now stay.
Apostoli, the humanitarian arm of the Orthodox Church in Greece whose programmes Us is supporting, has already been providing emergency items such as food and blankets at the stadiums in Athens where the asylum-seekers are temporarily residing.
The Greek government is struggling to respond to this situation, and the UN, NGOs and church groups are distributing food, clothes, medical care and hygiene products.
Earlier, I was in Idomeni, visiting the transit site that sits on a railway line right on the border of Greece and Macedonia. It’s basically a field containing numerous large and small white tents.
This site was established to house people while they waited to cross the border into Macedonia. But, in the last few weeks, Macedonia put up a fence and adopted a policy whereby only Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans were being allowed through. As a result, around 1,500 people of other nationalities got stuck.
During my visit, I met Somalis, Iranians and Pakistanis, and I knew there were people of other nationalities also.
The camp was dirty and poorly and unsuitable for long-term occupation. International and domestic NGOs and volunteer groups were trying their best to make life bearable for those living there.
The people I met complained of the unfairness of Macedonia's arbitrary policy which only allows select nationalities to cross. At the same time, they said they couldn’t go home due to dangers there.
Of the Somalis I met, many belonged to large families which had been split up because they could only afford to send one child to escape the war in Somalia.
UNHCR was providing information about the refugees’ right to claim asylum in Greece. There was a bus waiting to take refugees back to Athens to begin that procedure.
Clearly, the day after my visit, the Greek authorities decided to enforce that return to Athens. I understand this is because the refugees were blocking the train line and thereby preventing business.
The difficulty now for these refugees from the “excluded nationalities” is that Greece's asylum system will be under great pressure and it is already notoriously slow. It has been known to take years for refugees to receive a decision on their applications.
Meanwhile, as we are starting to see, there is the challenge of housing these asylum-seekers while their requests for asylum are processed.
Max McClellan is helping to co-ordinate the response to the refugee crisis in Greece for the Anglican mission agency United Society (formerly USPG) and the Diocese in Europe.
- Click here for more information on the response of the United Society and the Diocese in Europe to the refugee crisis.