Greece starts emptying border camp as new arrivals slow

Greece starts emptying border camp as new arrivals slow

IDOMENI, Greece – Agence France-Presse
Greece starts emptying border camp as new arrivals slow

A child stands next to drying clothes at the makeshift camp of the Greek-Macedonian border, near the Greek village of Idomeni. AFP photo

Greece said on March 26 it has begun emptying the main migrant camp on its Macedonia border, as the huge tide of refugees flooding into the country slows to a trickle following the EU-Turkey deal.

Eight buses transported around 400 refugees from the Idomeni camp  on March 25, while a dozen more buses were waiting for migrants so far reluctant to leave the border, shut down earlier this month.

Those persuaded to board the first buses were mainly parents with children who can no longer tolerate the difficult conditions in the squalid camp.

Janger Hassan, 29, from Iraqi Kurdistan, who has been at the Idomeni camp for a month with his wife and two young children, thinks he will probably leave.

"There's nothing to do here. The children are getting sick. It's a bad situation the last two days it's windy, sometimes it's raining here," he told AFP.

"We don't have a choice. We have to move," he said.

Desperation was evident in the camp. One tent bore the slogan: "Help us open the border."

But some are holding out at Idomeni.

"People who have no hope or have no money, maybe they will go," said 40-year-old Fatema Ahmed from Iraq, who has a 13-year-old son in Germany and three daughters with her in the camp.

"But I have hope, maybe something better will happen tomorrow, maybe today," she added.

She said she would consider leaving Idomeni if Greece gives every migrant family decent shelter and doesn't send them to a similar camp elsewhere.

A total of 11,603 people remained at the sprawling border camp on March 26, according to the latest official count.

Giorgos Kyritsis, spokesman of the SOMP agency which is coordinating Athens' response to the refugee crisis, said the operation to evacuate Idomeni will intensify from March 28.

"More than 2,000 places can be found immediately for the refugees that are at the Idomeni camp and from Monday on this number can double", Kyritsis added, pledging to create 30,000 more places in the next three weeks in new shelters.

Meanwhile, the flow of refugees arriving in Greece is slowing dramatically.

Greece on March 24 said no migrants had arrived on its Aegean islands in the previous 24 hours, for the first time since the EU-Turkey deal came into force last week.

Before the deal the numbers arriving each day had numbered in the thousands. The day after it came into force, on March 21, 1,662 people arrived, but this fell to 600 on March 22 and 260 the following day.

On March 25, the number of new arrivals was 161, down to 78 on March 26, according to official numbers given by the Greek government, while the number of migrants in Greece was 50,236.

Greek authorities have used the relative calm to put in place logistics to send people back, including the deployment of 4,000 security personnel and asylum experts.

All new arrivals in Greece are being taken to registration centers set up on five Aegean islands.

Those seeking asylum will stay there while their applications are considered by Greek and European officials.

Medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, the International Rescue Committee and the Norwegian Refugee Council have all criticized the EU-Turkey deal on ethical grounds and scaled back some of their activities.

In 2015 more than a million migrants entered Europe, about half of them Syrians fleeing war, with Germany shouldering most of the burden.

Of these, around 850,000 people made the sea crossing to Greece from Turkey -- a route that also claimed more than 300 lives.

Refugees are also trying their luck on the Greek-Albanian border.

Albanian police arrested on March 26 seven Syrian refugees who had entered Albania from Greece, Athens News Agency reports. According to the Albanian police, the refugees were sent back in Greece.  

Albanian Foreign Minister Ditmir Bushati, who has been in Athens this week for talks with his Greek counterpart, had pledged Albania's help "despite its modest financial resources."