European states clamp down on transit points used by refugees

At sunset a group of mostly Syrian refugees arrive on the Greek island of Lesvos after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey. © UNHCR/I.Prickett

EU member states continue to clamp down on border crossings, railway lines and transit points used by thousands of desperate – and increasingly frustrated – refugees fleeing war and poverty. The refugees are of all ages and many are from Syria, but others are from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Croatia put its military on alert Friday, treating the humanitarian crisis as a threat to national security. Nearly all roads between Serbia and Croatia have been closed, and Croatia’s Interior Minister said the country “was not an open door to the European Union.” Friday, buses were shuttling migrants to the Croatian border with Hungary – where the circle is closing as razor wire fences go up.

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Hungary sealed its border with Serbia Tuesday, blocking a major northward route traveled by the current wave of refugees. By Wednesday, Hungarian riot police fired tear gas and water cannons on migrants desperate to cross.

For many refugees, Greece is the first point of European entry, both by sea and over land. In two separate incidents earlier in the week, another 56 people – including children – drowned while trying to cross the Aegean Sea from Turkey to the small Dodecanese islands, where one local mayor threatened to boycott elections this weekend if the central government didn’t provide help. And at the land border between Turkey and Greece, thousands of people trying to avoid the dangerous sea crossing are demanding that Greek border officials allow them to enter the country.

“The daily flow has not stopped, we have daily arrivals,” says FSRN reporter Aris Oikonomou in Athens. “We have 200-250,000 refugees that have entered Greece through Lesvos, Leros and Kos. Concerning the coping of the islands, we do have a big problem actually – there is a hygiene problem, you do have a lot of migrants and refugees lying on the port waiting for the boats and on the streets. You have a security issue, mainly concerning violence, violence related to migrants being very impatient because authorities are not giving them papers. And you do have a big exploitation issue, as far as Greeks that are exploiting refugees in the islands, making them pay three times or four times the price of basic commodities such as food and water.”

The citizens of Greece are weathering multiple crises – the humanitarian refugee crisis and an ongoing economic and political collapse. This Sunday, voters will go to the polls for the third time in a single year.

Again, Aris Oikonomou: “So in Greece, generally elections are not constructed around political proposals very often. It looks much more like a football or soccer match where you have people supporting one team or the other. So you don’t have a lot of discussion about the bailout program, at all actually.  Syriza doesn’t refer to it, it only refers to the fact that it was forced to sign it – but they don’t about the content of it.  And, New Democracy, Vangelis Meimarakis, only underlines the fact that Syriza betrayed its voters and that it signed the bail-out program. SO no one actually refers to the content – at least from the two big players. The only one that actually  does refer to it is the Greek Communist party  goes to the measures that will apply and some ex-members of Syriza that today are much more independent.”

Oikonomou says the details of the next round of austerity measures are already clear. What’s at stake in the elections is who will apply them.

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