IDOMENI, GREECE/ATTICA GREECE – Refugees and migrants in Greece staged protests Wednesday at the country’s border with Macedonia and on islands near the Turkish coast, with officials still unsure when an international agreement to reduce migration will take full effect.
Several hundred protesters camped out at the border disrupted food distribution by charities in the sprawling tent camp that has sprouted near the village of Idomeni and demanded the border be reopened.
But some thought the protest misguided.
“I think it’s wrong that they’re protesting in this way. We must all get into the relocation program. It’s our only solution,” said Bayan al Assaf. The 21-year-old from Syria’s pulverized city of Homs was in Idomeni with his parents, 18-year-old sister and 13-year-old brother, and hoped to get to Germany or the Netherlands.
About 150 people also blocked one lane of a highway and a highway flyover by the nearby town of Polykastro, staging a demonstration outside a small hotel frequented mainly by charity workers.
Conditions in Idomeni, where thousands have been stranded since the border shut to refugees earlier this month, have steadily deteriorated, exacerbated by days of rain that have turned the fields into muddy swamps.
On Tuesday, a young Syrian man set himself on fire during a protest there. He was hospitalized with burns to his upper body, doctors said.
Those in Idomeni have found themselves stranded without a clear picture of what their options are.
“We’re staying here without any plan. We don’t know what to do,” said Emad Sukariah, a 54-year-old from the Syrian capital of Damascus traveling with his wife. Three of his children are already in Germany, he said, and one is in Austria.
“I came from the war in Syria to go to Germany, not to stay here,” Sukariah said. “I don’t agree with this move to hold the protests, but the situation has led (the protesters) to it.”
Small protests have also occurred at three detention camps on three Greek islands, where arrested migrants and refugees are waiting to be deported back to Turkey.
All refugees and migrants arriving in Greece are being arrested since Sunday, when the agreement between Turkey and the European Union took effect.
Human rights groups have been strongly critical of the deal. The United Nations refugee agency and relief agency Doctors Without Borders, or MSF, have stopped assisting the government at registration facilities on the islands, now being used to detain refugees.
MSF’s head of mission in Greece, Marie Elisabeth Ingres, said the decision was “extremely difficult.”
“Continuing to work there would make us complicit in a system we consider to be both unfair and inhumane,” she said.
Greek officials could not say when the deportations would start, with outstanding legal and practical issues still to be resolved.
“It is clear that the processes are no longer ones of transit through Greece, but ones of control, and yes, that does mean that some measures are tougher,” Public Order Minister Nikos Toskas said on ERT state television.
“It is not pleasant for anyone, but we are implementing measures that have been agreed with the European Union. Everyone who does not get asylum will be returned to Turkey — that is not something pleasant.”
Toskas said the numbers of migrants now arriving on Greek islands from the nearby Turkish coast was “still very variable. “So we will see what the situation is in a few more days.”
MSF said Wednesday it had suspended activities at a refugee center on the Greek island of Lesbos to avoid being complicit in an “unfair and inhumane” EU deal to send newcomers back to Turkey.
The move came a day after the UNHCR said it had suspended some activities in Greece, saying reception centers had become “detention facilities.”
The International Rescue Committee (IRC), operating in Lesbos, and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) swiftly joined MSF and the UNHCR in voicing concerns and scaling back activities.
“We took the extremely difficult decision to end our activities in Moria (on Lesbos) because continuing to work inside would make us complicit in a system we consider to be both unfair and inhumane,” said Marie Elisabeth Ingres, MSF’s head mission in Greece.
The NGOs spoke out after a deal struck last week between EU states and Turkey to force migrants and asylum seekers to return from Greek islands to Turkey.
“We will not allow our assistance to be instrumentalised for a mass expulsion operation and we refuse to be part of a system that has no regard for the humanitarian or protection needs of asylum seekers and migrants,” said Ingres.
She said MSF had closed “all activities” linked to its operation at the Moria camp on Lesbos, including transportation of refugees to sanitation and medical facilities.
MSF said it would continue to run its transit center in Mantamados some 30 km (20 miles) farther north, where new arrivals receive first assistance, as well as sea rescue activities.
“MSF will also continue to run mobile clinics on the island of Lesbos for those outside of the hotspot location,” the group said.
The EU and Ankara struck a deal last Friday aiming to cut off the perilous sea crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands that some 850,000 people used last year as a route to flee the war in Syria.
The agreement went into effect Sunday.
The UNHCR said Tuesday it would not be party to the deal nor be involved in returns or detention, noting Greece “does not have sufficient capacity on the islands for assessing asylum claims, nor the proper conditions to accommodate people decently and safely pending an examination of their cases.”
Separately the Norwegian Refugee Council said it was suspending “a number of activities” at the Vial center on the island of Chios.
“We cannot work independently and safely in a police-run detention facility. Now that it is a detention centre we no longer have adequate access to provide assistance to vulnerable refugees,” said NRC head of operations in Greece, Alain Homsy.
Greek authorities last Saturday began accelerating the transfer to the mainland of some 8,000 refugees and migrants who had arrived on the islands before the March 20 cutoff and who now can hope to be resettled across Europe. Newcomers arriving since Sunday are instead now subject to return to Turkey.
Despite the NGOs’ concerns, Greece’s deputy interior minister, Nikos Toskas, insisted Wednesday that “we think we can control the situation” as the European Commission and Greece look to mobilize some 4,000 security personnel.