ATHENS – Keen to clear the decks for its lucrative summer tourist season, Greece is trying to clear thousands of migrants out of its biggest port where they are sleeping rough by persuading them that they are better off in organized reception centers.
More than 50,000 migrants have been stranded in Greece because of multiple border closures across the Balkans to the north, sealing off a land corridor to wealthy Northwestern Europe used by a million people before them fleeing conflict and deprivation in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
The port of Piraeus is the main gateway to Greece’s Aegean islands beloved of tourists — but also for an annual exodus of Greeks from the mainland to celebrate Orthodox Easter.
So Greek officials, anxious not to scare off the travelers’ trade so vital to the debt-ridden country’s cash-starved treasury, are at pains to stress to migrants camped out there that Piraeus is not a home.
To that end, they are circulating a pamphlet, in Piraeus and other areas of Greece with impromptu migrant camps, showing the beaming face of a child, a man using thumb and forefinger to show a love heart and a boy munching a banana. It reads:
“The boards (borders) to other European states are now blocked from all directions and unfortunately there is no hope that they are going to open in the foreseeable future.”
The pamphlet, published by the Greek coast guard in Arabic, Farsi, English and Greek, is a gentle undertaking to coax migrants to head to organized reception centers.
“The Greek people will always be your friend,” it adds.
Over 4,000 migrants were camped at Piraeus on Monday and over 11,000 at Idomeni, a northern border outpost where Macedonian police fired tear gas to drive back migrants who stormed the border fence in desperation on Sunday.
The response to the pamphlet has been a mix of resignation and suspicion.
“I think it will be better at the (reception center). It has to be. I’m tired of this place,” said Osama Jamal, a 30-year-old Syrian, as he and members of his family waited to catch a bus out of gritty, bustling Piraeus port.
“I’m tired of this place. I have read there are showers there and better accommodation,” he told Reuters.
Greek authorities laid on buses on Monday to transfer migrants from Piraeus to dockyards northwest of Athens, and there were signs that refugees were on the move.
But some were not convinced, fearing they would be essentially jailed in a reception center.
Furat Mamo, from the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo, said he would rather stay in Piraeus than go to a reception center.
“We heard it’s very bad. A friend of mine is there and he says it has closed doors, that he needs a special paper to go out,” the 24-year-old student said.
Mamo and a friend have been living in a passenger terminal at Piraeus for a month, their possessions wrapped in blankets. Authorities say they cannot remain there for much longer.
The coast guard leaflet of happy beaming faces urges people not to lose hope, and that people will get free medical care, food and transport if they move on to reception centers.
“Do not lose your courage, we stand by you, we love you…! the pamphlet reads.
Furat Mamo and his friends at Piraeus were not swayed.
“I think all we can do is wait here,” he said.