Frustrated Migrants Try To Reach Macedonia Through Greece
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And here is a number on asylum-seekers that still has the power to shock. Almost as many migrants entered Greece in the first two months of this year as in the entire first half of last year. Thousands of them are stuck this morning in a vast field in Greece at its border with Macedonia. The U.N. says the situation risks becoming a self-made European humanitarian crisis as country after country puts up barriers to entry, with comments like that of Austria's chancellor, quote, "we won't be a waiting room for Germany." Reporter Joanna Kakissis is at that Greek-Macedonian border.
JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: And I gather that it is a quite dramatic sight where you are.
KAKISSIS: Yeah, it is quite dramatic. There are 10,000 people here sleeping on the ground, sleeping in tents, lots of small children, a lot of them under the age of 5 walking around with little teddy bears in their little puffy jackets, building fires to stay warm. It just looks like a huge makeshift refugee camp because huge numbers of people are not allowed to cross at a time, it's just a hundred people at a time. So people have to wait, often more than a week, to get through this border so they have to sleep outside.
MONTAGNE: And who exactly is there?
KAKISSIS: So most of the families here are Syrians and Iraqis. These nationalities are still allowed to cross through the borders of the Balkans in Austria to reach Germany and other Northern European countries. Everyone else is now being bussed back to Athens.
MONTAGNE: And that is because Syrians and Iraqis are viewed as coming from countries actively at war. So what about - who are the everyone else?
KAKISSIS: Everyone else is largely Afghans. Yes, there was this ad hoc decision made that only Syrians and Iraqis qualify as war refugees that can seek asylum. Afghans - some countries, including Austria, are trying to reclassify Afghans as being economic migrants. Countries like Germany are also saying that there are safe zones in Afghanistan. Afghans didn't get the news. They didn't get the memo that the ban is on them now. So now they're stuck here in Greece. There are a few hundred on the Macedonian side of the border - I'm on the Greek side at the moment - and they said they're going to go on a hunger strike unless they're allowed to pass. But we also have thousands and thousands of Afghans now stuck in Athens, and they're sleeping outside and in parks. And yeah, Afghans are now - cannot pass into Northern Europe as asylum-seekers.
MONTAGNE: But if, as you say, only just a few people are getting through at a time, why can't, say, Syrians and Iraqis get through in large numbers?
KAKISSIS: Because at the moment there are a series of border restrictions that range from Macedonia to Austria, through the Balkans to Austria, in which only a few hundred are allowed through a day. These are border restrictions that began with Austria, which decided that it wanted to take charge of the whole migrant situation and start controlling borders. So there's this sense that - from the Austrians that Greece hasn't done enough to screen the migrants coming in, and they excluded Greece from any of the decisions that they made about the borders. And so they've asked the Macedonians to do additional screening themselves. So sometimes you have people being questioned for, like, 30 minutes before they're allowed to pass. Of course that backs people up, and that's why only a few are allowed through at a time. And there are huge fears now in Greece that thousands and thousands of asylum seekers will be stuck here without shelter, without food, and that's worrying a lot of people.
MONTAGNE: Joanna, thanks very much.
KAKISSIS: You're welcome, Renee.
MONTAGNE: That's Joanna Kakissis speaking to us from the border of Greece and Macedonia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.