Near the southern tip of Athens a hockey stadium is close to capacity, and yet the stands are empty. It was designed for 2,100 fans to take in the Olympic spectacle in 2004, but today it’s the outer shell that is packed.
Families now line the corridors and back rooms that once served as locker rooms and hospitality suites. The stadium has been turned into a transit facility that is now home to 1,750 people stuck in limbo, as a result of Europe’s discriminatory border policies which seem more interested in protecting borders than people.
When Darya, her three sisters, nieces and nephews reached the Greek FYROM border after travelling for two months, they were turned back. Home is now this faded arena. They’re out of options and slowly running out of hope.
With her nephew in her arms Darya* tells me, “We wanted to leave Afghanistan because there was no peace, no security. Every day a bomb explodes and every day we lost lots of our people – they were killed and injured.”
“I was an English teacher in Afghanistan until bombs started exploding in schools. What should we do? We came here not just because of economics, but because of peace and security. To be safe.”
Doors slamming shut
More than 128,000 refugees and migrants have made the treacherous journey to Greece in the first two months of 2016 – that’s 27 times the number recorded over the same period in 2015. The total number of people that entered Europe via Greece, since 2015, is now close to 1 million.
While an average of around 1,400 people continue to arrive daily to Greece, doors elsewhere are slamming shut. Fences are being built, walls fortified – Europe is bunkering up.
On 20 February, a domino effect of border closures in central Europe, pushed the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) to shut its border to Afghans who normally made up a quarter of arrivals. Further restrictions meant that Syrians and Iraqis were only let through if they had a passport or a recognised ID.
As chaos, tensions and indecision in the region grew, passage came to an almost complete halt. The border was closed to a trickle for several days in late February and early March. On days when it was open, only a few hundred people were able to cross.
This has pushed on Greece the brunt of what is in effect an international migration crisis. Nearly 23,000 are now estimated to be trapped in the country – ahead of them a sealed fence, behind them the countries they’ve fled.
The vast majority live in deplorable conditions in facilities originally build as brief transit points. Just at the northern Greece border, 12,000 people, including 3,500, children are stuck. They’ve been waiting for weeks at a facility that was meant to host 1,200 people. Most are without adequate shelter, clothing or food.
Among them are children traveling alone. Some were separated from their families on the route, others started the trip alone, but all are at risk of exploitation: As the legal border crossing remains shut and they’re unsure when it will open again, they are running out of money and patience. Smugglers stand by.
Darya tells me about their attempt to cross to FYROM: “When we got to the border it was closed. There were a lot of people standing there. They didn’t have a lot of things, like clothes, water, food. They didn’t have anything.
“They didn’t let us get to the border. They said ‘we don’t have anything for you here’. I got very worried about ourselves and our people. And I cried.
“Please help us and open the borders, so everyone can go on the ways that they want. We lost lots of things we don’t have anything to go back to in Afghanistan.”
Nowhere else to go
Darya has no answer when I ask her what they will do next. I instantly feel like it’s a stupid question. She has been left with no reason to look beyond the cramped corner where she and her family bed on thin blankets; or the open plan cold water showers that are the only place to wash; or the fears her young relatives will miss out on growing up where they can go to school in safety.
As Turkish and EU leaders gather in Brussels for an emergency summit with the aim of tackling the crisis, the situation for Darya and so many like her can only be mitigated when European governments work together to put an end to the selective admission policies at their borders.
People fleeing violence and persecution are legally entitled to a fair asylum process that is based on needs, not nationality. The EU needs to support Greece in its efforts to meet the needs of people in transit and seeking asylum.*
* Name changed to protect identity