Migrants in Greece, Ready to Go Anywhere in Europe, Scramble to Enter E.U. Relocation Program
ATHENS — Under the glare of a naked light bulb, in the tiny one-room apartment where he has taken shelter with three other young Syrian refugees, Ismail Haki clutched the folded white card on which he has pinned all his hopes.
“It’s our only chance,” said Mr. Haki, as he and his companions displayed the cards that showed they have applied for asylum in Europe. “If this works, we don’t know what country we’ll end up in. But at least we’d be in Europe.”
The four men arrived in Greece last month after making a perilous trek from Aleppo, the war-torn Syrian city, to find a hoped-for path toGermany closed. After languishing in a military camp for two weeks, they turned in desperation to a final option and entered a European Union relocation program that might, if they are lucky, place them almost anywhere in Europe but Germany.
The closing of Europe’s main migrant route to Germany, whose open door policy last year made it a preferred destination for refugees, has stranded more than 50,000 people in Greece. Now, as a European Union deal to start returning new arrivals to Turkey takes effect, many are realizing that their dream of getting into Europe’s prosperous north may be virtually impossible to attain.
Having come this far, migrants are scrambling to figure out how they can stay legally anywhere in Europe, or at least avoid getting deported as new policies to reduce their numbers come into place.
Some are now taking steps to settle in Greece, a battered country that may struggle to integrate them at a time when a quarter of the population is jobless. But many more are vying to get into the European Union relocation program, which is supposed to disperse 160,000 refugees, mostly from the Middle East, in countries across Europe.
“People are scared. A lot of them are saying we have no hope,” said Yousif Karoija, a Syrian who has been living for weeks in Piraeus, the port of Athens, after being tear-gassed when he tried to cross Greece’s northern border. “These people will apply to the relocation program now; they are tired, and will go anywhere in Europe,” he said, sweeping his eyes over a crowd of nearly 5,000 women, children and men camped in squalid conditions around the port.
The timing could not be worse. Since Islamic State assailants bombed Brussels last week in terror attacks that killed 31 people, Europe’s focus has swung sharply to security, raising the prospect of a further tightening of the European Union’s migration policies. The attacks renewed a bitter debate over migrants as right-wing European politicians urged a halt to mass immigration in speeches that conflated refugees with terrorism.
Poland on Wednesday abandoned its pledge to take more than 6,000 migrants under the European Union relocation program, citing the attacks. “We can’t allow for events in Western Europe to happen in Poland,” said Rafal Bochenek, a spokesman for the conservative government.
For Mr. Haki and the men with whom he was sheltered, the future was thrown into question yet again.
“We left a dangerous situation,” said Mr. Haki, who was transferred from a military camp near a muddy refugee encampment in Idomeni to a cramped apartment in a run-down Athens neighborhood after registering for the program with the United Nations refugee agency. “We hope every country will have an open mind. But after Brussels, I don’t know.”
Even before the bombings, Europe’s welcome was wearing thin. The new European Union accord with Turkey, which authorizes migrant deportations starting April 4, was sealed rapidly last week to dissuade asylum seekers from coming after more than one million reached Europe last year. Aid agencies withdrew some operations in Greece this week to protest the deal, which they say flouts international law.
Countries opposing a further migrant influx have also resisted implementing the European Union relocation accord, which is barely functioning. Under the pact struck in September, European countries agreed to take asylum seekers from Greece and Italy to help share the burden.
But Austria, Hungary and Slovakia have refused to comply. Others have dragged their feet: France has so far agreed to take just 1,300 migrants out of 19,431 places pledged, while Germany opened 40 spots out of 27,479. Belgium has made 30 places available out of 3,788. All told, fewer than 1,000 refugees have been relocated since the pact took effect.
Mr. Haki heard about the relocation plan at the military camp, where the United Nations refugee agency and aid organizations offer information and sign-ups.
Once registered, migrants can move into one of around 20,000 rooms in hotels, apartments and host homes funded by the United Nations and run by the Greek aid group Praksis, which provides food vouchers and medical care while the refugees await a decision on their applications.
One recent evening, Mr. Haki and the other young men sipped tea on the balcony of their apartment, where four bunk beds crowded a room next to a small kitchen. With the exception of two Greek families, everyone in the five-story building was a refugee from Syria or Iraq.
“We need a future,” said Mohamoud Sharour, 23, who said he had fled conflict in Aleppo. “Right now we’re stuck. We wait, we sleep, smoke cigarettes. But we want to work, and build a life.”