Three days after its opening on Aug. 16, the makeshift camp for migrants in the Eleonas district of Athens looked like the landscape of a sci-fi movie. Located just below busy Iera Odos Avenue, the 10-acre emergency site is surrounded by big warehouses and junkyards. Ninety newly built containers are neatly lined up in the vast open space.
The summer of 2015 in Greece will go down in memory as the “summer of the dispossessed.” Thousands of people fleeing war and persecution in their home countries have arrived on Greece’s shores, hoping to eventually make their way to the richer countries of northern Europe.
This month, the Greek government opened its first “hospitality center” to accommodate some of the refugees in the capital. The camp has gradually filled in the past week and currently hosts about 500 people, according to Greek newspaper Kathimerini.
The UN refugee agency UNHCR estimates that 160,000 people have arrived in Greece since the beginning of the year -- almost four times as many as came in all of 2014. Nearly 21,000 migrants entered the country in the week between Aug. 8 and 14 alone, the most recent week for which overall figures are available. The majority of the new arrivals are fleeing the years-long wars in Syria and Afghanistan.
Run by the ministries of migration, labor and health, the Eleonas camp is designed to accommodate up to 720 people. In addition to sanitation facilities, the camp holds a medical center and a huge open tent serving as a children’s space where kids can play ball or finger paint.
Most refugees first enter Greece through the islands of Kos, Samos, Chios, Lesvos, Kalymnos or Leros; almost all come through Turkey. They’ve often paid traffickers the equivalent of $1,000 per person, at a minimum, for the crossing across the Aegean Sea. Upon arrival on the islands, they get a temporary residence permit that allows them to stay in the country for a limited time -- 30 days for most nationalities and up to six months for Syrians. They can apply for asylum in Greece, but most prefer to travel on to northern Europe.
Kareem, who moved to Eleonas last week, is one of those who hopes to travel north. The 29-year-old came to Greece with his family: his wife, small baby and older daughter. Communicating in broken English and gestures, he said he came from Afghanistan and fled Iran, where he was living, out of fear of being drafted into the Iranian army to go fight in Syria. He considers his stay in Eleonas temporary and wants to go to Germany, where he has some family and hopes to find a job.
But the stay in Greece, however temporary, can be a challenge in itself as Greece's cash-strapped government struggled to provide basic amenities for the refugees.
The identification process on the islands often takes days, with local offices struggling to keep up with the sheer number of migrants. While they wait to be registered, the newly arrived camp out in public spaces.
Until the opening of the camp in Eleonas, the options of refugees who had made their way to Athens after the identification process were also limited. Stranded in the capital, with no place to go and no real means to support themselves during a sizzling summer, up to 2,000 people camped in Pedio tou Areos, one of the biggest parks of the capital, for several weeks this summer.
Without government-run services or facilities to assist them, it fell to local volunteers to meet the refugees' basic needs. People from all over Athens, especially from nearby neighborhoods like Exarcheia and Kypseli, formed a solidarity structure that managed to shelter, accommodate and feed an ever-fluctuating number of people who kept coming and leaving.
Volunteer-run groups covered food distribution, medical needs, clothes, cleaning, communication and children's creative play. Solidarity achieved a miracle in Pedio tou Areos, said Achilles Peklaris, one of the volunteers. "This is the weapon of the people,” he added.
Now, the crisis-stricken Greek government has finally stepped in to assist the refugees streaming in to Athens. The Eleonas camp will serve as a model for other centers that will be constructed imminently, including new facilities on the islands of Kos, Chios and Leros, said Greece's alternate minister of immigration, Tasia Christodoulopoulou, at a press conference Aug. 19.
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