Greece activates Plan B to address refugee emergency

Greece was taking “all the measures as if borders have closed for good by activating a Plan B to deal with the refugee emergency,” Greek Deputy Migration Minister Yannis Mouzalas said on Sunday.

“We have submitted an emergency plan to the EU requesting an extra 450 million euros for setting up more temporary camps for the refugees that will be trapped in Greece,” the Greek official told local Mega television channel.

As Balkan countries have stepped up border restrictions in the past week following Vienna’s cap on crossings into Austria, the number of refugees and migrants stuck in Greece has increased to more than 20,000 within a few days, according to the Greek ministry data.

The number could exceed 70,000 in a month, Mouzalas said, as the influx from Turkey via the Aegean Sea continued unabated.

More than one million refugees and migrants have landed on the Greek islands over the past year through Turkey to escape wars and poverty and continue their journey to central and northern Europe.

Before the construction of new fences and the increased border controls across the Balkans the overwhelming majority of incomers were leaving Greece through the neighboring Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) within a week on average.

Despite progress achieved in recent months by establishing a total of seven reception centers on the Greek islands and the mainland so far, Greek authorities cannot accommodate such numbers in the current overcrowded facilities.

As a result, thousands of refugees, including entire families with children and elderly injured on wheelchairs, are spending the cold nights in unofficial camps set up in open squares in Athens or along the national highway which links the Greek capital to northern Greece.

Their common goal is to reach the border crossing of Idomeni between Greece and FYROM, although more than 6,500 people according to the latest estimates by Greek police are already “trapped” in the border camp there for days waiting to cross the border.

In a bid to regulate the flow until the border situation improves, the Greek government put on Friday a cap on the number of passengers allowed on aboard ships sailing to Piraeus port from the islands at least until Sunday night.

The about 1,200 refugees and migrants who arrived in the port on Saturday evening and the early hours of Sunday from the islands of Lesvos and Chios joined the 2,000 people who have been temporarily given shelter at the port’s passenger terminals over the past few days.

The Greek government believes that the situation will improve once the NATO operation in the Aegean to assist Greece and Turkey in monitoring refugee flows and cracking down on smugglers’ rings will start bearing fruits in coming weeks, Mouzalas noted on Sunday.

“We believe that the number of people entering Greece which stands at about 5,000 per day at the moment, will shrink by 70 percent,” he said, reiterating a call to European partners to offer more support to Greece to deal with the emergency.

Athens had requested the European border control agency Frontex 1,700 officers and 26 vessels several months ago and so far only 700 officers on eight vessels have been deployed in the Aegean, the Greek minister underlined.

Meanwhile, Greek authorities supported by Greek and foreign humanitarian groups and ordinary citizens were struggling to offer aid to people in need.

Companies and individuals donate food, clothing, blankets and medicines, while volunteers, including doctors and translators are rushing to the new temporary camps from Piraeus port to the central Athens Victoria square to assist the refugees.

Most of the people who risked their lives to cross the Aegean Sea have one key request from the Greek government and other European states: “let us continue our trip, help us cross the borders,” refugees like Ahmad from Afghanistan told Xinhua in Athens.

The 30-year-old father of two children had managed to reach the Idomeni border crossing early last week with his family, but due to the restrictions they were returned to Athens in a reception center.

On Sunday, Ahmad, like all refugees around him, “could not wait to continue the journey and reach the final destination- northern Europe to find a better life.”

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