Despite border closures, Syrians determined to reach Europe

12 March 2016
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Clutching an English phrase book, Mohammed Sawadi is preparing to head north.

The 23-year-old university student traveled from Damascus with his two cousins. They knew Greece’s borders were closed before leaving home but say nothing will stop them getting to northern Europe.

“We made a vow: We will get to Europe, and we will stay together,” said Sawadi, wearing a Batman T-shirt and holding a map of central Athens.

The three cousins crossed Turkey before reaching the Greek island of Chios and taking a ferry to Piraeus, the country’s largest mainland port, near Athens. Sawadi wants to join his brother in Germany and eventually settle in The Netherlands.

European leaders are determined that they won’t make it out of Greece any time soon.

The country’s borders were sealed off to migrants and refugees a week ago and NATO expanded patrols in the eastern Aegean Sea — and waited for signs that the number of arrivals was beginning to slow.

It’s not yet clear if that is happening: From an average of 2,000 arrivals per day at Greek islands facing Turkey so far this year, the numbers have become more uneven.

The daily number stayed below 1,000 most of the past week, but spiked to 3,340 on Wednesday, according to data from the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR. About half of those arriving are from Syria, with the rest mostly from Afghanistan and Iraq.

“It’s too soon to draw a conclusion from that data. We’ll need to see what happens in the next few days,” Public Order Minister Nikos Toskas told private Skai television Saturday. “I think the flow of migrants and refugees will eventually slow down, but it won’t happen in a day.”

Since the borders closed, the number of migrants and refugees stranded in Greece has climbed to above 42,000. And the European Union’s commissioner for migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos, a conservative Greek politician, revealed this week that emergency plans are being made to help the country cope with 100,000.

About a third of those stranded in Greece are camped out in harsh conditions at the border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), where no one has crossed in the past week.

“Arrivals could remain high for as long as war and destitution affects refugees’ lives. The EU’s decision to encourage the closure of the Balkan migration route doesn’t mean people will stop trying to reach northern Europe,” said Apostolis Fotiadis, an Athens-based migration researcher and author of the book “Border Merchants: Europe’s New Architecture of Surveillance.”

“(Migrants) will just go underground, taking greater risks to their own life and boosting crime in Balkan economies,” he said.

In Piraeus, Sawadi and his cousins studied a map of Athens to locate the central bus station for their trip north. About 2,000 people camped out at the port are also mulling their options. Young men play football on the quay and small groups sit on the ground to play cards; others huddle around European Union migration officers in navy blue vests who inform them that the borders will remain closed and the best option is to head to an army-built shelter and follow Europe’s relocation procedure.

But so far, European Union member-states have offered only 3,412 places to settle asylum seekers, and fewer than a thousand have actually been relocated, according to Avramopoulos.

Salih Abbed, an accountant from Damascus and Sawadi’s cousin, says Syrians must make their own luck.

“We’re going to buy a tent and go to the border. I’m not afraid to go there. We won’t go to a camp,” he said. “It’s different now: It was easy last year when you just followed the others. Now you have to depend on yourself.”

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