Europe News

Brussels attacks are hurting refugees in Greece

By Nasos Koukakis, special to
Refugees and migrants shout slogans during a protest demanding the opening of the Greek-Macedonian border, in a makeshift camp near the village of Idomeni, Greece, March 21, 2016.
Alexandros Avramidis | Reuters

The terrorist attacks in Brussels is making it more difficult for the Greek government to manage the refugee crisis, as more and more EU countries become reluctant to allow the arrival of refugees into their territories.

On Wednesday, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras had a telephone conversation with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to complain about the poor results of NATO's operation in the Aegean Sea, initiated last month to discourage the influx of refugees and immigrants in the Greek islands.

NATO has been tasked to do reconnaissance and surveillance and to collect information and share this information in real time with the Turkish coast guard, the Greek coast guard and with Frontex to help manage the migrant and refugee crisis and cut the lines of illegal trafficking and smugglers.

NATO's widened mission in the Aegean Sea came after defense ministers of the 28-nation alliance on Feb. 11 ordered the immediate deployment of the three vessels in Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 to the Aegean, where smugglers have been bringing tens of thousands of migrants into Europe.

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However, NATO's presence does not deter traffickers, and the only factor that discourages migrants from boarding boats on the Turkish coast and heading for the Greek islands are the high winds and rough seas.

The latest official estimates, publicized Wednesday by the coordinating body on the refugee crisis, claims there are a total of 49,085 refugees currently in Greece.

According to this latest update, there are more than 3,800 refugees on the islands in the eastern Aegean Sea, most of whom are currently on Lesvos and Chios. After making their way to Piraeus, a total of 13,850 are currently in Attica and a further 2,933 in Central Greece. A total of 28,412 refugees have found their way to the north of Greece, with about 12,000 concentrated in Idomeni, at the border crossing into FYROM.

The latest figure is lower than the previously published estimates on Tuesday, which suggested there were 52,206 refugees in Greece. As expected, this shortfall has caused some concern.

The conditions in the northern Greek town of Idomeni are becoming increasingly worse, as NGOs temporarily withdrew from the temporary camps on Tuesday over security concerns.

"The situation is difficult. There is tension; the people are exhausted. They come to the infirmaries and shout they want to be first in line, they cannot wait," Antonis Rigas for Doctors Without Borders told CNBC. "There are groups of people shouting, 'We don't want food. We want the borders to open.' We are waiting for things to calm down to see what we will do. We have all reached our limits," he added.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees spokesperson, Babar Baloch, who left Idomeni on Tuesday after two refugees attempted to set themselves on fire, said he was concerned about the situation growing worse, because people are losing patience and there is growing tension.

Baloch commented that although Greek authorities are urging the refugees to leave the area, there are no places for them in the hospitality centers at Diavata and Cherso. Others want to return to Athens but have run out of money, he added.

Although the Greek Minister of Public Order, Nikos Toskas, has argued that there is no reason for concern in Greece following the terrorist attack in Brussels on Tuesday, people have begun to fear that extremists may be among the refugees coming in. Security at Athens International Airport and Piraeus Port, where thousands of refugees are stranded, was beefed up in the wake of the Brussels terrorist attack.

"There is no reason for concern in Greece. For historic reasons, our country is not a target, but we must be vigilant, because many people come through our country and we cooperate with other governments. We have not located any cells or movements to cause concern," Toskas said on SKAI TV.

Government spokesmperson Olga Gerovasili said on ALPHA 989 radio that the peoples of Europe should resist fear and respond with the values of solidarity and protection of fundamental rights. "Closing the borders, we will shut in our enemy," she said in an interview earlier today

But the terrorist attacks in Brussels have started to build other types of reactions within Greece.

Bishop Amvrosios, a leading cleric with nationalist positions, said on Wednesday that refugees are not welcome to stay in Greece, because their customs and religion are "incompatible" with the norms of the native population. "We are not compatible. Our customs are incompatible. We do not like their culture. We do not accept their religion," Amvrosios wrote on his blog.

Greece will soon be facing even greater challenges. In order for the country not to turn into an endless ghetto of abandoned refugees and illegal migrants, decisive actions, a plan and common national front are needed. But the terrorist attacks in Brussels made it even more difficult for EU countries to make the relevant decisions.

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— By Nasos Koukakis, special to CNBC