Refugee crisis

Greece's Huddled Masses

Greece refugees Nikos Pilos for Handelsblatt
Refugees have been turning up at the former airport which is now the Helliniko refugee camp in the outskirts of Athens, Greece.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Europe sealed its southern borders without developing a long-term plan for the refugees now stranded in Greece.

  • Facts


    • Nearly 55,000 refugees and migrants are stranded in Greece.
    • Amnesty International has warned of a looming “humanitarian catastrophe” if authorities don’t address the “appalling conditions” in the camps soon.
    • In Ellinikon Airport, there are 40 toilets for more than 4,000 people, and aid organizations report many of the 1,000 children are malnourished.
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Packed together in tight rows, hundreds of colorful tents line the West Terminal of Ellinikon Airport in Athens. The facility, decommissioned  15 years  ago, is now being used to house refugees. More than 4,100 people meanwhile call the West Terminal and its annexes home.

A visit to the refugee center finds some migrants dozing in the colorful tents and others stretched out on the concrete floor on blankets.

Merwe, 19, from Afghanistan, is in front of a tent with her mother. Her cousin is camped out next to them with his two daughters. “We’ve been here for two months now,” Merwe said.

Her family paid smugglers $10,000 to take them through Iran, Turkey and then by boat to a Greek island whose name Merwe has forgotten.

“We lived for two weeks on the island in a guest house until we used up the last of our money,” she said, noting that Ellinikon has become her family’s end station.

“Greece's first favela is developing in Idomeni.”

Nikitas Kanakis, President of Doctors of the World, Greece

Nearly 55,000 refugees and migrants have been stranded in Greece since the Balkan route to northern Europe was shut down in February. Many hope a route will open up again soon.

Merwe and her family are trying to reach relatives in the eastern German city of Magdeburg. “It will work out some how,” Merwe said. “It has to.”

In the beginning, people were happy to arrive in Ellinikon. They at least had a roof over their heads after treacherous travels. But the mood is growing tenser as the conditions deteriorate.

“Only cold water comes out of the showers,” Merwe said. “That’s a problem for the many babies and their mothers here.”

Another woman said the food is bad and insufficient. Aid organizations have substantiated this claim, reporting that that many of the 1,000 children in Ellinikon are malnourished. Only 40 toilets are available for the more than 4,000 people.

Five mayors from the communities neighboring Ellinikon recently sent a letter to Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, warning of the deteriorating conditions in the airport.

“The situation is out of control and poses an enormous risk to public health,” the mayors wrote. The government has yet to respond.

Only two police officers sit outside Ellinikon in their patrol cars. The refugees are basically left on their own. After two months of waiting in vain, young Syrians and Afghans are increasingly getting into fights.

4/19/2016 Athens, Greece, Shisto refugee camp. Refugees wash their clothes. Two thousands of refugees have been given temporary shelter at the Stefanakis Army Camp in the Schisto area of Athens, Greece
Refugees have to deal with limited facilities in Greek refugee camps. Source: Nikos Pilos for Handelsblatt


Last week, clashes in a refugee camp on the island of Lesbos left 15 people injured. Tensions are also running high at another overcrowded camp on the island of Chios, where beatings and stabbings occur nearly every night in the camps in the port of city of Piraeus and Idomeni near the Macedonian border.

Idomeni, where 11,000 people are encamped, is known as the “camp of shame” in the Greek media. Amnesty International has warned of a looming “humanitarian catastrophe,” with refugees and migrants subjected to “appalling conditions” and living in a “constant state of fear and uncertainty.”

Deputy Interior Minister Giannis Mouzalas has promised to build long-term shelter for an additional 20,000 people in the next two weeks and tear down the infamous camp in Idomeni. But so far, few migrants have followed the authorities’ call to move to the long-term shelters.

“They will forget us there,” said Kadir, a 22-year-old who has lived with his brother in a small tent in Idomeni for almost three months. The two brothers nearly made it to Macedonia, but the border closed in February before they could continue northward.

“The world will remember us only if we stay here,” Kadir said.

Some claim Greek officials share this sentiment, with the argument: The more visible the misery in Idomeni, the more Athens can leverage the situation to negotiate an easing of austerity measures with the European Union.

Whatever the government’s motives, the encampment at Idomeni is beginning to look less temporary. The first wooden barracks are being built, and there are now tea houses, shops and even a provisional school.

“Greece’s first favela is developing in Idomeni,” said Nikitas Kanakis, president of the Greek division of Doctors of the World. He doesn’t believe the government has a plan to address the situation.

“They’re thinking about next week and indulge the illusion that the refugee problem will solve itself,” Mr. Kanakis said.

Not unsurprisingly, in a country with 25 percent unemployment, there’s hardly been any talk of integration.

“This word doesn’t appear in the Greek refugee debate at all,” Mr. Kanakis said. Most of the refugees, he added, will stay in Greece for “least two or three years.”

Tamim, a 20-year-old Afghan, expects to be stranded in Greece for a long time. He has lived in Schisto west of Athens for the past two months. The conditions there, he said, are much better than in Idomeni, with meals served three times a day, enough showers and toilets, and even a provisional school.

“I don’t believe the borders will open again soon,” Tamim said. “But I won’t give up hope, even if I have to wait here for years.”


Gerd Höhler is Handelsblatt’s correspondent in Greece. To contact the author:

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