Refugee crisis puts Athens on the brink

The flow of refugees through Greece is greater than ever, but bad weather and border closures threaten to strand thousands and stretch coping mechanisms beyond control.

“The road was like a river. I saw babies ready to be swept away,” Maria Galinou of the Greek branch of the Salvation Army told DW, recalling how hundreds of refugees had gotten caught in a sudden downpour soaking men, women and children to the bone.

“What was most difficult to see was people just sitting in the rain, in the water,” added Suzanne van der Veldt, a young volunteer from Holland with the newly formed Boat Refugee Foundation. “It was like they had given up. It was very sad.”

Syrian and other refugees making the long trek through Turkey to northern Europe face many obstacles: hazardous sea journeys; uncertain border crossings and miles of trudging through mud and fields. But the scenes described by the NGO workers did not occur in some remote border region, but in Victoria Square in downtown Athens.

The sudden arrival of heavy rains in Greece after months of dry weather was a stark reminder that as winter approaches, it will only amplify the difficulties facing the refugees pouring into the country, as well as those seeking to manage the crisis.

The numbers

While the flow of refugees and irregular migrants into Europe is by no means a new phenomenon, 2015 marked a step up in the scale and nature of the problem – and particularly so for Greece.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), from January to September 29, an estimated 526,577 people had entered Europe by sea. That is more than double the number that made similar crossings in the entirety of 2014.

And by far the largest increase has been seen in the flow of people entering Greece via the islands in the Eastern Aegean, such as Lesbos, Samos, Kos and Chios. To date in 2015 over 338,000 refugees and migrants are estimated to have entered Greece by sea, compared to Italy’s 131,000.

According to Daniel Esdras, the Chief of Mission of IOM Greece, the upward trend in arrivals shows no sign of abating. “By the end of July, the average number of arrivals was 2,000 per day,” he told DW. “By the end of August it was over 5,000 and now it is close to 6,000. So we have seen an enormous increase. By the end of the year we will surely have received over half a million.”

Passing through

That the unprecedented number of refugees arriving in the Greece – among whom are many women, children and disabled individuals – has not led to an even more dramatic humanitarian crisis is due in no small part to the efforts of numerous NGOs and thousands of volunteers who have fed, clothed and attended to the needs of tens of thousands of desperate individuals.

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(Photo: (c) Pavlos Zafiropoulos)