Europe bracing for more waves of migrants
Athens, Greece — Bitter cold, biting winds and rough winter seas have done little to stem the seemingly endless flow of desperate people fleeing war or poverty for what they hope will be a brighter, safer future in Europe. As 2016 dawns, boatloads continue to reach Greek shores and thousands trudge across Balkan fields and country roads heading north.
More than a million people reached Europe in 2015 in the continent’s largest refugee influx since the end of World War II — a crisis that has tested European unity and threatened the vision of a borderless continent. Nearly 3,800 people are estimated to have drowned in the Mediterranean last year, making the journey to Greece or Italy in unseaworthy vessels packed far beyond capacity.
The European Union has pledged to bolster patrols on its external borders and quickly deport economic migrants, while Turkey has agreed to crack down on smugglers operating from its coastline. But those on the front lines of the crisis say the coming year promises to be difficult unless there is a dramatic change.
Greece has borne the brunt of the exodus, with more than 850,000 people reaching the country’s shores, nearly all arriving on Greek islands from the nearby Turkish coast.
“The (migrant) flows continue unabated. And on good days, on days when the weather isn’t bad, they are increased,” Ioannis Mouzalas, Greece’s minister responsible for migration issues, told The Associated Press.
Europe’s response to the crisis has been fractured, with individual countries, concerned about the sheer scale of the influx, introducing new border controls aimed at limiting the flow.
Along the Balkan migrant route, an undetermined number of men, women and children considered economic migrants have found themselves stranded, their hopes of reaching prosperous northern EU countries dashed by recent border closures. Greece, with thousands of miles of coastline, is the only country that cannot feasibly block people from entering without breaking international laws about rescuing those in distress at sea.
The number of those estimated to be stuck in Greece runs in the thousands. Mohammed Abusaid is one of them.
A baby-faced 27-year-old Moroccan electrician, Abusaid left home with dreams of finding work in Germany or even the United States.
Like tens of thousands before him, he made his way with a group of friends to Turkey and then braved the short but perilous sea crossing to the Greek island of Lesbos in early November.
From there, they headed north only to discover the Macedonian border was open only to those from war-wracked Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq. The young Moroccans now spend their nights huddling for warmth in a tent beneath a straggly tree outside Athens’ old airport.
“I’m living here like a tramp. But I’m not a tramp,” Abusaid said. “I’m single, my parents are old. I want to look for work. We don’t cause trouble, we just want to work.”
But Abusaid finds himself trapped in a country battered by a five-year financial crisis that has left unemployment hovering around 25 percent. Desperate, cold and hungry, two of his friends have opted for the voluntary repatriation scheme offered by the International Organization for Migration and are heading home this month. Abusaid says he’s pondering following suit.
But he still hopes to make it to northern Europe for a better life, and dreams of America. “I wish I could fly like a bird and go there.”