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World & Nation

European nations’ refugee policy leaves thousands of migrants stranded in Greece

Refugees in Athens

Refugees who were rebuffed in their attempt to go to Northern Europe wait in a food distribution line at the former Olympic taekwondo center in Athens.

(Yannis Kolesidis / European Pressphoto Agency)

After weeks of journeying from his native Iran, through Turkey and into Greece, Khaled found himself stuck in Athens with little hope of making it to Northern Europe, where he hoped to make a new life.

A Sunni Muslim and member of the Baluch ethnic minority, Khaled, 36, thought the pressures and harassment he said he faced in Shiite Muslim-dominated Iran would make him eligible to join the more than 700,000 people who have sought asylum in Europe this year.

But that was before countries along Europe’s migration corridor last month announced they would let in refugees from only three war-racked nations — Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria — leaving migrants from elsewhere stranded in Greece.

The policy is aimed at easing the massive influx of refugees into Europe, but it has thrust thousands of migrants from troubled countries in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia into an uncertain limbo. Critics say the policy is discriminatory and encourages many asylum seekers to lie about their backgrounds in a desperate bid to gain passage to Northern Europe.

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Speaking outside a housing complex for refugees in Elaionas, a western suburb of Athens, Khaled, who did not give a last name, said Greek authorities stopped him this month at the border with Macedonia, one of the countries that has said it would take in only Afghan, Iraqi or Syrian refugees.

“They didn’t even give me a chance to explain,” said Khaled, whose family was in Iran and hoping to join him in Europe. “Now I have no idea what to do. I can’t stay here, but I can’t go back to Iran either.”

Baluchis in Iran say they suffer from systematic discrimination and accuse security forces of conducting arbitrary raids on their households in Sistan-Baluchistan province, among the least developed areas in the Islamic Republic.

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“We are under immense pressure in Iran both for being Baluch and for being Sunni,” Khaled said.

Having already spent more than $2,000 on his journey, Khaled said he was nearly out of funds. His chances of reuniting with his family in his homeland are unclear because under Iranian law, any citizen who leaves the country without proper papers is barred from returning.

Greece has been the main gateway into Europe for the masses of migrants. After Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov announced the entry restrictions last month, thousands continued to fill makeshift tents in the Greek border town of Idomeni, apparently unaware of the policy. They included people fleeing economic privation, conflict and discrimination in countries such as Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen, Eritrea, Pakistan and Somalia.

Ivanov said any increase in the flow of refugees into Macedonia, which saw more than 2,000 refugees arriving each day at the height of the migration, would lead to “permanent and direct threats and risks for national security.”

The comments reflect the deep ambivalence in the Balkans and Southern Europe — where many states are economically fragile — over accepting the new arrivals. Macedonia’s neighbor, Serbia, has announced similar restrictions, while neighboring Croatia has said it would accept only refugees from the three war-torn countries plus the Palestinian territories.

Early this month, Greek authorities evicted about 2,300 migrants from Idomeni and transported them to Athens. Hundreds were sent to a former Olympic taekwondo center, where they were subsisting on food rations and sleeping on concrete floors without mattresses.

By making it to the Elaionas camp, which opened in August and is the only refugee facility of its kind in Greece, Khaled was more fortunate than most. He can stay for up to one month in one of the rows of converted shipping containers that line the 10-acre site and house several hundred refugees.

The camp is operated by the Greek government and staffed by the United Nations refugee agency and volunteers from Greece and other countries who have been drawn to the humanitarian crisis. Some volunteers say conditions in the camp are poor, with inadequate blankets and basic supplies, and a lack of heating in living quarters on nights when the temperature dips almost to 40 degrees.

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In the past, refugees from Iran deported by Greece posed as Afghans in the hope of being sent to Kabul and crossing from Afghanistan back into their homeland to evade Iranian authorities. Now, Afghan refugees say, Iranians and Pakistanis — many of whom share the same language as Afghans — are falsely identifying themselves as Afghans to improve their chances of gaining asylum in Europe.

“They claim to be us and we are made to suffer for their crimes,” said Akbar, a migrant from the western Afghan province of Herat. One interpreter at Elaionas said many of the Iranians in the camp claim to be Afghan.

Some European leaders have indicated they would like to classify Afghan nationals as “economic migrants” instead of refugees fleeing an active war zone. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said this fall that Berlin had begun talks with Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan on repatriating their refugees from Germany.

Although Merkel has won praise overseas for Germany’s relatively open policy toward migrants, she told a meeting of her conservative Christian Democratic party Monday: “We want to and we will noticeably reduce the number of refugees because it’s in the interest of everyone.”

Such statements have contributed to a sense of unease at Elaionas, where many still hope to make it to Northern Europe. On a recent day outside the camp, refugees could be heard asking one another: “What’s the latest from the border?” “Will they let us in or not?”

Latifi is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Shashank Bengali in Mumbai, India, contributed to this report.


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