Rising tide of Refugees in Greece

GREECE’S migrant crisis is getting worse. Macedonia has closed its border to all but a trickle of migrants, following the example of Austria and other countries along the so-called West Balkans route to Germany. Yet desperate Syrians and Iraqis continue to arrive at the Idomeni crossing point. On February 29th Macedonian police used tear gas against scores of migrants trying to break down the border fence. As The Economist went to press, more than 12,000 people were crammed into a tent camp with facilities for only 1,500. Food is in short supply. “It’s a tense situation,” says Panagiota Siafaka, a social worker with the UN High Commission for Refugees.

So long as the border remained open, Greece could manage the flow of arrivals from Turkey. Now almost 30,000 migrants are bottled up in Greece. Nikos Kotzias, the foreign minister, expects the number to reach 150,000; local aid agencies worry that 200,000 people may arrive in March alone. Reception centres around Athens for migrants are hopelessly overcrowded. Half a dozen new ones, mostly refurbished former military camps, are quickly filling up. Local and international charities provide food and medical care. “The state seems absent, but luckily ordinary people are here every day to help,” says Mariana, a paediatrician working at Piraeus port, gesturing towards a group of elderly Greek women handing out bananas and chocolate bars to harassed mothers in headscarves.

But stemming the flow of migrants from Turkey is proving hard. A NATO naval mission was due to begin monitoring the strait between Greece and Turkey on February 29th, electronically locating smugglers’ boats so Turkish coastguards could nudge them back to shore. But on March 2nd the NATO vessels were still in port. The Greek defence ministry said Turkey had raised “technical problems”.

EU leaders hope for a breakthrough at a summit on March 7th with Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s prime minister. The Turkish government has yet to crack down on the people-smugglers. Diplomats in Athens believe the Turks will make a deal conditional on EU countries resettling Syrians from refugee camps in southern Turkey. Meanwhile, Turkey has agreed to take back economic migrants who crossed to the Greek islands from Turkey. After weeks of bureaucratic exchanges between the Greek and Turkish police, a first group of 270 Moroccans, Tunisians and Algerians were handed into Turkish custody on March 2nd at the land border in Thrace. A group of 150 Pakistanis will be next. It is a modest start, yet even a small reduction in numbers helps relieve Greece’s migrant burden.

ECONOMIST, THEOSASUSHOW