Greece + 3 more

Hopes fade for new Syrian friends camped at Greek border

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A group of seven Syrian refugee families, once strangers, arrived on the Greek islands together and are still together © UNHCR/T. Karas

IDOMENI, Greece, March 4 (UNHCR) – Members from seven Syrian refugee families, with shared hopes and fading dreams, sit around a fire, brewing mate, a traditional tea-like drink.

For more than a week they have been huddled together near the Greek side of the border crossing with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

The region around Idomeni has become a makeshift home for nearly 20,000 refugees and migrants as countries further up what is known as the 'Balkan Route' have all but shut their doors to those who had hoped to reach northern Europe.

Many in this group of 35 were strangers until last month. They first met when they crossed the Aegean Sea together in the same rubber boat to the Greek island of Chios.

By now, adversity and challenges have forged them into one giant family. At Idomeni, they live in seven tents pitched in a circle around a fire pit, waiting at the border.

Three of the families are all women, travelling alone with their children. The youngest of the group, three-month-old Rimaz, has been sick for days. The oldest, 85-year-old Rashida, cries when asked how she's holding up.

As a young girl she was a Palestinian refugee in Syria. Now, the same fate has befallen her grandchildren. Their home in Yarmouk, a Damascus neighbourhood, was razed to the ground two months ago.

"In Syria, before the war all of us here, these people had cars and houses and education," said her grandson, 17-year-old Ghayth. "We didn't live like this," he said, gesturing at muddy fields festooned with human detritus.

Breakfast is a piece of bread, often obtained by waiting in a queue for up to two hours. The mothers in the group said it is hard to find milk for their babies -- or anything nutritious.

However, despite everything, they support each other and keep each other laughing throughout the day. Young men take turns gathering firewood from the trees in nearby forests or walking to grocery stores to buy vegetables and supplies. But after spending more than $2,000 each to get here via smugglers, they are all nearly out of money.

Idomeni was never meant to be a long-term refugee reception centre. Though UNHCR provides rub halls, refugee housing units and large tents, it is nowhere near enough for everyone. Like these Syrian families, most people sleep in flimsy camping tents or out in the open, huddled under thick blankets.

Greek authorities have responded. The military is planning three camps with a total capacity of 12,500, but only one is currently underway. Some 35,000 men, women and children are now in Greece, needing shelter and assistance, and some 20,000 of these are now at Idomeni.

Most refugees at Idomeni are from Syria or Iraq. Afghans, who comprise the second-largest group of refugees and migrants reaching Greece by sea, are no longer permitted to pass over the border, which still opens sporadically and raises hopes, due to new restrictions.

Late last month, Greek authorities stopped allowing Afghans to take buses to Idomeni and bussed those who were already there back to Athens.

In the past week it has rained twice, turning Idomeni's fields into muddy streams. Drying clothes and blankets flap in the wind between tents. The air is punctuated with sounds of children coughing.

"The situation is becoming more dire by the hour," said Babar Baloch, a UNHCR spokesman. "We have a huge challenge on our hands. Greece is struggling to come up with reception spaces and ways to care for people. We need help from the EU, and we need them to move quickly to relieve this pressure on Greece."

The majority of those here are families. In February, women and children made up nearly 60 per cent of sea arrivals compared to 27 per cent in September 2015, according to UNHCR figures.

Ibrahim, from Yabroud in the countryside north of Damascus fled Syria with his wife and three-year-old daughter, Sabouha -- his "little angel," he calls her. For two years, they had been refugees in Lebanon. Last year they went back to Syria when life in exile became too difficult. But with no end to the war in sight, they fled to Europe recently.

Ibrahim wears the same clothes he wore when he departed from Izmir, Turkey, 10 days ago. Like many in the group, he has only managed to shower once since then. Idomeni does not have enough showers. He wakes up at 4 a.m. to queue for milk for the group's babies. The lines are shorter then.

"What did we do to deserve this?" said Ibrahim, who asked his last name not be used for protection reasons. He has two brothers in prison.

"Here it's like we are in jail. In Syria we had only two choices: run away or fight. My wife's brother has a house in Hamburg, Germany, and he's waiting for us. But we can't get there."

Three other Syrian mothers in this group have husbands in Germany. In Idomeni, they take turns caring for each other's children.

UNHCR emphasizes the need to promote legal avenues such as family reunification and relocation to help ease the situation.

"Legal options should be kept open for these cases," Baloch said. "If there are legal ways to come safely, they wouldn't need to put their child in a boat, risking their lives, and then be here in this chaos here today."

However, conveying information on legal options to so many people at Idomeni is challenging, Baloch said. The UN Refugee Agency provides legal counseling to those who approach its mobile unit at the camp. Those interested in relocation or family reunification are referred to the Greek asylum service and placed in temporary housing.

But many families stay on in Idomeni, hoping against hope that the borders will open.

"It's a huge challenge," Baloch said. "Because they are anxious and eager and hoping the border will still open."

For more pictures, click here.

By Tania Karas in Idomeni, Greece