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As EU Closes Doors, Greece Poised To Become Europe's Refugee Camp


European leaders meet today to address migrants arriving from war-torn nations. The EU looks poised to shut its doors to all asylum-seekers, and that would be a reversal of last year's open-door policy. For many people, the doorway has been Greece. Joanna Kakissis is there.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: If you want to see the dysfunction of the EU firsthand, go to the Greek village of Idomeni. It's near a barbed-wire fence that divides Greece, an EU member state, from the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Macedonian border guards rarely let anyone pass, even asylum-seekers from Iraq and Syria. Randa Abdulkhalifi is a physics teacher from Idlib, Syria. She and her family are among 14,000 Syrians and Iraqis camped out in the muddy fields here.

RANDA ABDULKHALIFI: The people stand like that waiting the food.

KAKISSIS: This is for the food?

ABDULKHALIFI: Yes. This line for the food. Three hours just waiting like that.

KAKISSIS: Abdulkhalifi and her husband, Fadi Kamar Aldeen, are here with their three children. They want to start over in Germany.

FADI KAMAR ALDEEN: We come from the war, you know, Syria. All the world see what happened in Syria.

ABDULKHALIFI: And this situation is the same of war. We are tired, very tired.

KAKISSIS: For months, refugees who landed in Greece were waved through to northern Europe by the Balkan countries of Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia, as well as Austria. But last month, Austria put new restrictions on who could enter, prompting border closures throughout the so-called Balkan route.

AHMAD ZIA: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Balkan nations banned Afghans. Ahmad Zia and his seven-member family heard the news when they got off a ferry at the Port of Piraeus. Zia was a jeweler in Kandahar with a college degree in business. He does not understand why Europe does not want him.

ZIA: The Afghanistan people are so smart, hard worker, everything that we have. But unfortunately we don't have peace. It is a big problem for us.

KAKISSIS: Last week, European Council President Donald Tusk said economic migrants are not welcome.


DONALD TUSK: Do not come to Europe. Do not risk your life and your money. It is all for nothing.

KAKISSIS: But Yiannis Karamichalakis says the dangerous sea journey does not stop them. He lives on Lesbos, a Greek island that's just a few miles from Turkey.


KAKISSIS: "Entire families arrive, small children, soaking wet and crying. It's so sad," he says. I met Karamichalakis last month as he helped an exhausted Syrian-Kurdish family into a minivan leased by the International Rescue Committee. Twenty-one-year-old Rusul Ali and her 27-year-old husband, Zein Ghaleb, made the crossing with their four children - the youngest just seven months old.

RUSUL ALI: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: "We're not afraid anymore," Ali says. "We're going to Germany." Hundreds still arrive on the Greek islands every day. And NATO is sending another warship to patrol the sea. Lucy Carrigan is with the International Rescue Committee.

LUCY CARRIGAN: We don't think that this will stop people from coming to Europe. The push factors are far stronger than the pull factors. And desperate people will find more dangerous ways to come.

KAKISSIS: At least 30,000 asylum-seekers are currently stranded in Greece. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.