Held in Greece beside a closed border and EU relocation law
'We try to explain the situation to them but many remain hopeful the border will reopen'
Refugees and migrants queue to receive food in a makeshift camp at the Greek-Macedonian border. Photograph: Marko Djurica/Reuters
A protest in a camp for refugees and migrants at the Greek-Macedonian border. Photograph: Alexandros Avramidis/Reuters
A boy plays in a puddle at a makeshift camp occupied by migrants and refugees at the Greek-Macedonian border. Photograph: Andrej Isakovic/AFP/Getty Images
The RAF’s Red Arrows could not have picked a more unsuitable location for their annual overseas training than the skies above the Ritsona refugee camp, one of dozens set up by the Greek authorities this month, following the closure of the western Balkan route to refugees.
“My two children are scared of the jets,” said Yunus Asalim from Daraa, a city that Syrians identify with the start of the Syrian war five years ago this month, as the British aerobatics display team roar overhead, performing its yearly Springhawk exercises from a nearby air base.
One of 826 refugees in the newly erected reception camp, which also accommodates Iraqis, Afghans and Iranians, Asalim is frustrated that he and his family’s long journey from war in Syria to a new start elsewhere in Europe has been cut short, for the foreseeable future.
Along with three other men, he has embarked on a hunger strike in demand that the borders reopen to refugees. “We escaped war and don’t want anything else in this camp. All we want is for the border with Skopje to open,” he says, his use of the most common Greek label to refer to the neighbouring country in the north suggesting that he has learned not to offend Greeks by calling it Macedonia.
‘Unsanitary and unsafe’Austria
In rapid time, military engineers cleared saplings from the centre of the remote, abandoned base, covering the area with a bed of gravel. It consists of 140 white tents, which can each sleep up to eight people. Like most of the army-created camps, Ritsona is a work in progress, where the priority has been to provide accommodation to house the tens of thousands of refugees who have unwillingly found themselves stuck in Greece.
At the last count, the authorities reported 48,795 refugees in Greece, with 13,500 at various points around Athens, mostly in and around a number of terminals at Piraeus port (4,800), where conditions are described by Human Rights Watch as “squalid, unsanitary and unsafe”, and in the old Athens airport nearby (4,200).
At Idomeni on the northern border, where 12,000 refugees remain, the situation was “the definition of a humanitarian crisis”, said Greece’s health minister, Andreas Xanthos, who visited on Wednesday.
Many of those at Ritsona had been bussed up from Piraeus. Others decided to go back to the port as Ritsona, which is 6km from the nearest village and shop, lacks many basic facilities. The camp had only been connected up to the power grid work that day, ending the need for generators. The refugees, a third of whom are children, have to make do with cold showers, but volunteers in the camp point out the air force has issued tenders for portable shower buildings that will have hot water.
Catering is provided by a private company, which some residents said represented an improvement and more variety on the army food they had received initially.
But pointing to an unopened plastic container of rice with mince in her tent, one Syrian Kurdish woman said the food was tasteless. Instead, she had headed in to the woods around the camp to collect wild greens – as many Greeks do – which she was going to cook for herself and her group from the town of Afrin.
Local volunteers, who in the absence of designated staff have assumed a key role in running the camp, say they are doing their best to improve conditions. A volleyball net was erected for the children, film evenings with subtitles in Arabic and Farsi are planned, as is a vegetable patch to enable residents grow their own food.
But even if material conditions in camps like Ritsona improve significantly, a bigger obstacle remains: helping residents like Yunus Asalim come to terms with the new refugee regime that the EU has signed with Turkey. Under the terms of the deal, refugees who arrived in Greece before March 20th can apply for relocation to another EU country.
Reigniting hopeAndreas Zambetas
While the European Commission says it hopes to achieve 6,000 relocations in the first month and 20,000 by mid-May, refugees in Ritsona and Piraeus, as well as many volunteers and officials, complain that very little in terms of information has been provided about the deal or on how they can participate in it.
“We had a guy here from UNHCR the other day and when we asked him how long we’d have to stay before being relocated, he told us that we’d have to ask Ban Ki-moon,” said Ahmad Zhri (27), an applied chemistry graduate.
Zhri, who says he fled Syria because he was deemed suspicious by all sides in the conflict, plans to use his time in the camp to come up with a plan B to continue his journey.
“I’m not going to stay here for six months only to be told that I’m being relocated to a country like Slovenia, where they don’t want us. I don’t want to be given money to sit at home, either. I have skills and I want to contribute to society.”
Christos Malapetsas, another local volunteer, says that the sooner relocations begin, the better. “Lots of people here have family in countries like Germany who have homes and the means to put them up. They want to leave but that’s not happening. If relocations were to begin, that would reignite hope here.”