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Jolie says swelling refugee ranks in dire straits in Greece; arrivals top 1 million as hopes fade

AFP-JIJI/reuters

Hollywood star and UNHCR goodwill ambassador Angelina Jolie turned the spotlight of celebrity Wednesday onto the plight of thousands of refugees crowded in camps in Greece.

After visiting a makeshift camp in the port of Piraeus, Jolie said the refugees were stuck in a “deteriorating humanitarian situation” and needed help.

The 40-year-old actress, dressed in a black T-shirt and trousers, spent around 30 minutes at the port, speaking to U.N. staff and refugees coming to Piraeus from the islands facing Turkey.

Some 4,000 people are packed in terminals and tents there. They are just a fraction of the number of people who are stranded in Greece after the so-called migrant trail, heading from the Balkans up to Northern Europe, was closed off by national border controls.

Surrounded by a throng of media, Jolie had difficulty in reaching her car through the crowd but kept her composure as photographers and camera crews jostled for position and refugee children struggled to stay upright.

“Watch the kids,” she told her security detail.

As she left, dozens of refugees chanted “Skopje, open the borders” in a reference to Macedonia, which last week barred passage to all war and poverty exiles, a policy followed by other Balkan states.

Jolie will also be in Greece on Thursday, but her program has not been announced and it’s unclear whether she will travel to the north of the country, where conditions are worse.

“I look forward to meeting authorities, partners and volunteers working on the ground to improve conditions and ensure the vulnerable are protected,” she said in a statement about her trip.

“I hope the presence of Angelina Jolie will do something to help open the border,” said Bichal, a 23-year-old Syrian woman from Aleppo.

“I’ve been in Greece for a month and I’m still waiting to cross the border and go to Germany,” she told AFP.

Jolie subsequently drove to the camp of Eleonas in Athens, which currently houses some 700 people awaiting relocation, visiting families in prefabricated homes.

She then met with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who told her there were “30,000 people trapped in the Greek mainland because of unilateral actions by the countries on the Balkan route.”

Overall there are over 43,000 people in the Greek mainland and on the islands.

On Monday, some 1,500 refugees walked out of the Greek frontier camp of Idomeni, where over 14,000 people are languishing in squalid conditions, and tried to walk into Macedonia through an unfenced part of the border.

They were stopped by troops and returned to Greece a day later, some of them claiming to have been mistreated by Macedonian border guards.

The border shutdown has been criticized by Germany but has been applauded by EU President Donald Tusk as part of a “comprehensive” EU strategy to deal with Europe’s worst migration crisis since the Second World War.

The EU is pinning its hopes for a solution to the crisis on a summit with Turkey, which is hosting over 2 million refugees and has permitted another million to sail to Greece, on Thursday.

More than 1 million migrants and refugees have entered Greece since January last year, the United Nations refugee agency said Wednesday.

“More than one million people, mostly refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, have now crossed into Greece since the start of 2015,” UNHCR said in a statement.

Since the beginning of this year, more than 143,000 people have traveled from Turkey to Greece, pushing the total number of land and sea arrivals in that country past the 1 million mark in the past 15 months, it said.

This “milestone (is) an urgent reminder of the need for a more coordinated approach to managing the influx and protecting people who are fleeing war and persecution,” the agency said.

Syria’s brutal war, which entered its sixth year this week, has especially fueled the constant flood of people attempting to reach Europe, sparking the continent’s worst migrant crisis since World War II.

More than 270,000 people have died in the conflict, while nearly 5 million have fled as refugees and another nearly 7 million remain displaced inside Syria.

Highlighting the human tragedy unfolding, UNHCR said women and children currently make up nearly 60 percent of the people taking the dangerous sea route to Greece, compared to less than 30 percent last June.

So far this year, 448 people have died or been declared missing trying to make the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe, after 3,771 people perished on such crossings in 2015, UNHCR said.

Refugees stuck at the closed border crossing between Greece and Macedonia have little hope that a summit of EU leaders on the migrant crisis this week will lead to any improvement in their desperate plight.

European Union leaders will hold talks in Brussels on Thursday with Turkey’s prime minister to try to hammer out a deal to end the continent’s worst migrant crisis since World War II.

But the deal will entail returning the migrants holed up in Greece to Turkey, including more than 10,000 people living in the tent city near Idomeni on the Macedonian border who want only to be allowed to continue their trek northward to Germany and other wealthier West European countries.

“Nothing will change (due to the summit),” said Hussam Jackl, a 25-year-old Syrian law student who fled to Lebanon two years ago and, after working there illegally as a photographer, sold his equipment to pay a smuggler to bring him to Europe.

He has spent more than two weeks in rain-soaked Idomeni, where migrants’ shoes have taken on the same muddy brown hue of the fields and children stand knee-deep in dirt.

“If the borders remain closed I’m thinking of killing myself,” said Jackl. “I’m thinking seriously of killing myself if there is no solution.”

He held up a piece of cardboard in protest: “Dear Sun, please shine on us, it’s very cold here. They are not going to let us in but we have nowhere to go back.”

Most of the migrants have fled conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. They are unable to continue their journey because Macedonia and other countries along the so-called Balkan route have shut their borders to the migrants.

“We have nothing — no money, no clean clothes, no clothes to face the bad weather,” said Mazari, 20, who travelled from Afghanistan with her three children. One of the children drowned as they crossed from Turkey to Greece in an inflatable boat.

“I’ll stay here as long as it takes to cross (into Macedonia),” she sobbed. “I have no other choice.”

Humanitarian organizations on the ground say several hundred people have moved to two gas stations near the camp because of the bad weather, while others have returned to Athens.

Sanitary conditions have deteriorated and concern about the spread of infection has risen.

Waiting in line for clothes and shoes for his nephew, 18-year-old Ismail Sayed, who left Afghanistan in the hope of reaching Germany to study civil engineering, said all he could do was wait.

“I don’t have anything back in Afghanistan. I sold everything,” he said. “We want only one thing from European leaders: to open the borders. We want a proper future.”