Following the Flight Path in Greece

Following the path of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants through Greece is eye opening and emotionally trying. On a recent mission with Refugees International in Greece, many aid workers we spoke to along the way say that both the populations in flight and aid workers need psychosocial support. Unlike a situation in which humanitarians meet refugees in the relative safety of camps at the end of their flight, Greece is just one stop on a long journey northward, where first responders have rescued people from drowning, watched dead bodies float onto shore, and embraced those celebrating a successful entry into Europe. The range of emotions is extreme, and then stories of horrific violence, hardship, and for many, disappointment follow.

After visiting the islands of Lesvos and Kos we travel to the mainland Port of Piraeus, where refugees arrive from the islands. The ferries they disembark are massive, weighing in at about 20 tons with capacity to hold over 1,000 people and travel upwards of 24 knots — very different from the deflating rubber dinghies they came into Greece on. 

Unlike a situation in which humanitarians meet refugees in the relative safety of camps at the end of their flight, Greece is just one stop on a long journey northward.

With no systems in place to inform people of their options, the scene is chaotic.  Syrians — with money and a more advanced communication system established by those who came before them  — have already planned their trip onward. Afghans, Moroccans, and others try to seek information from bystanders in rudimentary English and then drift toward the train station, where they take the underground through the ancient city of Athens to seek temporary refuge in yet another transit center. Still others with not even the €1.20 for the train ticket settle on the concrete sidewalk awaiting fellow countrymen they hope will soon arrive with money and a spirit of solidarity.

A bus full of Syrians is parked on the highway as they negotiate a price with the bus company to take them the seven-hour drive north to the tiny Greek village of Idomeni, located on Greece’s northern border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Bus tickets to Idomeni range upwards of €20-€80 depending on the time of year, the company, and the negotiator.  

A middle aged Syrian woman from Latakia comes to speak with us, accompanied by a 35 year-old man from Homs, a survivor of the infamous “Massacre of Al-Houla”. “The Regime forces killed my pregnant wife and two children in the massacre,” the man said, showing us graphic pictures of the violence inflicted on his young family as evidence. “I will never go back.” 

“His parents are in Lebanon. How can we send for our relatives?” the woman asks.  Although they’ve already spent 22 days stranded on the Greek island of Farmakonisi, were registered, finger printed, and traveled through the island of Leros to reach Piraeus, they still haven’t received any information from aid workers about family reunification. We refer them to the Red Cross and they thank us and board the bus headed north.  

The scene on the border is grim. The smell of burning plastic and wood is thick in the air as refugees and migrants huddle around open fires, burning anything and everything for warmth. Hundreds of flimsy summer beach tents are set up on railway tracks, the lite polyester fabric flapping in the wind as temperatures dip into the freezing. Here, Moroccans, Somalians, Iranians, Yemenis, and more are stuck in what was just ten days prior another transit site with anywhere from 4,000 to 8,000 people passing through daily.  

But on November 19, 2015, Slovenia, FYROM, Serbia, and Croatia closed their borders to all but those who could prove Syrian, Afghan, and Iraqi nationality. “There are now around 3,000 people stuck here and there is no system in place to communicate to people [coming here from] Athens that they can’t cross the border if they can’t prove one of those nationalities,” one Scottish volunteer remarked.

As we walk through the camp people take advantage of the opportunity to plead with new faces: “Open the borders. We are human too.” 

One Somali refugee explains the ordeal of his journey, including travelling through Iran and Turkey, and being badly beaten by Turkish soldiers and sent back to Tehran before successfully reaching the Turkish coast. Upon arriving on the shores of Lesvos he made the three-day journey by foot from the seashore to the Moria refugee camp. An elderly Greek couple came to the road and gave him a loaf of bread. “Free” they said. “That was the day I thought all of the problems were over.” 

But now he is stuck in a no-man’s-land on the Greek border with thousands of other people from foreign places. “I feel pain because [the conflict in] Syria started four years ago but in Somalia it started 25 years ago.” 

Another range of emotions hit us all as the devastating reality sinks in that his problems are far from over. 

Renata Rendon is a consultant and a former Refugees International staff member who accompanied Mark Yarnell on his mission to Greece. 

Top photo: a food distribution line in Idomeni, Greece.