Greece struggles to keep up with a surge of migrants who are blocked in its borders

Migrants and refugees daily arrive at the port of Mytilini, Greece, on March 7, 2016. (Associated Press)

After Macedonia closed its borders to migrants earlier this week, the number of people arriving in Greece and living in deplorable conditions by the Macedonian border has grown. With an estimated 42,000 migrants stuck in Greece as of Thursday morning, it is more apparent than ever that Greece is woefully unprepared to handle what is quickly becoming a humanitarian crisis.

The migrants, mostly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, are seeking asylum in wealthy European countries like Germany. To stem the flow of migrants into these countries, European Union leaders and Turkey recently announced a plan to have Greece send back the migrants who reach its shores by boat from Turkey, while Turkey puts a stop to boats departing toward Europe. For each migrant returned, a migrant in Turkey is to be resettled in the EU. The plan has yet to be finalized, but has already raised concerns from UN officials, who say such collective and arbitrary expulsion may be illegal.

After the plan was announced on Monday, according to Time, the number of rafts reaching Greece more than doubled the very next day.

The rising number of migrants arriving from Turkey is placing Greece under even more pressure, as it rapidly becomes a temporary shelter for tens of thousands who cannot continue their journey north nor turn back home. For these migrants, much of the food, clothing, shelter and other emergency materials has come from international NGOs and Greek civil society. Without a solid, collaborative effort from the EU, Greece will have to deal with this crisis largely on its own, and it is not prepared to do so.

“The refugee crisis creates significant problems for the Greek economy and growth,” said Angel Gurria, secretary general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

“Greece needs to receive substantial support to deal with this new challenge. No single country can address this challenge on its own,” he added.

The EU has launched a new aid program worth an initial 700 million euros (or $760 million) to alleviate large-scale suffering in Greece and other countries strongly impacted by the migrant crisis, but the plan has yet to be approved.

The crisis has also, understandably, been a shock to Greek citizens living in and along the routes of the mass migration, particularly the small islands that receive the majority of migrants as they disembark leaky, unseaworthy boats from Turkey.

“A large number of migrants in a small community of people like these of Lesvos is a great and shocking change,” said Margarita Lantavou, a student at the University of the Aegean, in an interview with Humanosphere. “It is expected, therefore, [for us]to feel insecurity.”

Lantavou lives on the Greek island of Lesvos, the island on the frontline of Europe’s migration crisis. According to Greek government figures, 2,293 migrants had arrived in just one day to the country’s Aegean Islands earlier this week, with 987 of those arriving on Lesvos Island alone.

Lantavou and many other Greeks are more understanding than wary of the newcomers, and have contributed to the effort to help the migrants along their journey.

“The migrant crisis does not affect me either positively or negatively,” she explains. “The Red Cross and particularly the inhabitants of the island have shown their humanity and provided the migrants food clothes and everything else [that]was necessary.”

Unfortunately, not everyone has shown this level of compassion.

“Others, of course, have shown to be bothered by them for their own personal reasons, and others took advantage of them,” Lantavou said. “Some shopkeepers charged products of basic needs, such as water or food, at higher prices than normal.”

The migrant situation is changing on an almost hourly basis, it is hard to know what’s in store for the thousands of migrants waiting with diminishing patience at Greece’s border with Macedonia. Currently, the hope is that EU states will quickly decide on how to address the growing crowd of asylum seekers waiting to cross a border that may not soon reopen.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Seattle-based journalist covering health, inequality and human rights in Latin America and worldwide. As a second-generation immigrant from Greece, Lisa’s objective is to encourage awareness of global issues and cultures through her stories. You can contact her at lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org.