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Dispatches: On the Ground in Greece, with the Refugee Crisis

At the Athens port of Piraeus, the effects of Europe’s utter failure to respond collectively and compassionately to people seeking protection is painfully clear. Over 4,000 women, men, and children are sleeping in old warehouses, tents, and even under trucks. They are among the estimated 44,000 people trapped in Greece as a result of Western Balkan border closures.

Children washing outside a makeshift camp for asylum seekers and migrants at the port of Piraeus, in Athens. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, estimates that women and children now make up nearly 60 per cent of those seeking refuge in Europe, March 11, 2016. © 2016 Nasim for Human Rights Watch

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), estimates that women and children now make up nearly 60 percent of those seeking refuge in Europe, primarily from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. What is most striking here is how many young children – how many babies – are among them. Many are sick from the cold and hardships.

Their futures uncertain, many also have dire immediate concerns. Three Syrian women told us they sleep with their arms over their children, terrified of kidnapping. There is no privacy, and their husbands have to accompany them to use the toilet at night.

Families who arrived that morning by boat from one of the islands sat on the ground outside one of the passenger areas, hoping for a tent, but a volunteer said tents were scarce and would be given out later to those who most needed them.

A Syrian mother of a 2-month-old baby described not having access to a shower or being able to wash for days. “Imagine if you have your period,” she whispered.

The humanitarian crisis here is a microcosm of the challenges Greece faces as the EU and other countries turn Greece into a massive refugee camp. Authorities are unable to provide for basic needs such as food, water, and medical care. It’s mostly aid groups that provide blankets, tents, and essential information about people’s legal options.

With an average of 2,000 to 3,000 people reaching Greece every day, closed borders and sluggish implementation of an EU relocation plan mean the number of people stranded in Greece is growing. As of March 15 a scheme to transfer 66,400 people to other EU countries over two years had benefitted only 569 people. Afghans, who make up one-fourth of those who have reached Greece by sea this year and who have a high rate of recognition for asylum across the EU, are excluded.

EU leaders meeting today in Brussels will be focusing on a rights violating and inhumane proposed deal with Turkey to block arrivals. Instead, they should agree on a plan to share responsibility for all asylum seekers in Greece, to support decent living conditions for refugees in Turkey and other frontline countries, and to create and operate a large-scale resettlement program that is not based on a quid pro quo that turns back asylum seekers but rather gives refugees an orderly alternative to dangerous journeys toward an uncertain fate.

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