By Helena Smith and Mark Tran
The Guardian, 29 Feb. 2016
The Guardian, 29 Feb. 2016
Athens says its infrastructure cannot cope as Macedonian police fire teargas at crowds breaking through frontier fence.
Chaotic scenes have intensified across Greece as the embattled government edged closer to declaring a state of emergency to deal with tens of thousands of migrants and refugees trapped in the country.
With authorities from the Athens port of Piraeus in the south to Pella in the north scrambling to accommodate desperate men, women and children, tensions escalated at the Greek-Macedonian border on Monday as police from the neighbouring Balkan state fired teargas at refugees who broke through a frontier fence at Idomeni.
“Even Greek police were teargassed,” said Gemma Gillie, a spokeswoman for Médecins sans Frontières who witnessed the scene.
“It all happened so suddenly as a group of about 300 people, shouting ‘open the border’, were shaking the fence,” she told the Guardian. “At some point they broke through it but no one actually tried to run the border.”
Greek officials said more than 7,000 people had massed at a makeshift camp on the border. The vast majority were Syrians and Iraqis determined to continue their journey north into central Europe. “Everywhere you look there are children, we’ve never seen so many,” added Gillie. “They were gassed too. Ten of the 22 we had to treat for respiratory problems were kids and four were under the age of five.”
Greek government insiders said the pressure on the country’s public infrastructure – eviscerated by seven years of budget cuts to keep debt-laden Athens afloat – was overwhelming. Schools, sporting arenas and passenger terminals have all been turned into impromptu refugee camps. Between 2,000 to 3,000 migrants and refugees are reaching Greece every day with close to 25,000 stranded within its borders as a result of Balkan countries’ decision to close Europe’s eastern migrant corridor. More than 9,500 are marooned in Athens alone.
Volunteers described scenes of mayhem at passenger terminals in Piraeus and the arrival hall of the former Ellinikon airport in Athens, where up to 4,000 have been housed. “We should have resorted to using the armed forces long ago,” said one. “[But] being [a] leftwing [administration], there was hesitation. There were humanitarian values we wanted to uphold.”
The bottleneck has increased demand for people smugglers and fake travel documents, with traffickers reportedly flooding Victoria Square, the main meeting point for refugees in Athens.
For several days, Macedonian authorities, citing a similar move by Serbian police, have reduced the migrant flow to a trickle. “People here are not so much angry as scared,” said Gillie. “The border has only been opened at night and just for a few hours. Although they are Syrians and Iraqis, many are worried that they will fall victim to the same abrupt decision that was taken with Afghans.”
Thousands of Afghan nationals have been returned by bus to Athens in the six days since restrictions were tightened.
The desperate scenes came as Angela Merkel warned that other European countries could not afford to let the continent’s refugee crisis plunge Greece into chaos by shutting their borders to migrants.