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Greece Begins Moving Refugees Out of Idomeni Camp
The Greek authorities began moving hundreds of refugees on Tuesday out of a sprawling makeshift camp near the village of Idomeni, on the border with Macedonia, a crucial point on the so-called Balkan trail for migrants that has been closed off for months.
A police operation started around 6 a.m., and by early evening more than 2,000 refugees had been taken by bus to state-run encampments near Thessaloniki, the second-largest city in Greece.
Riot police officers were stationed outside the area, as there were concerns that the operation would lead to unrest. But a spokesman for the Greek police, Lt. Col. Theodoros Chronopoulos, said the evacuation of the camp, which had 20,000 migrants at its peak in March and until Tuesday morning about 8,000, most of them Syrians, was carried out "completely smoothly" and would continue through the end of the week.
"It's going much better than we expected, or than we'd hoped even," he said.
A police helicopter monitored the evacuation. Journalists were denied access to the camp to avoid "exciting" the refugees, according to the authorities.
The refugees had been living in squalid conditions for months, hoping to be allowed to cross the border and head toward a better life in Northern or Western Europe, a vain hope as the frontier has been closed to all migrants.
Colonel Chronopoulos said 2,500 people had left the camp in the past two or three weeks, in response to gentle but firm urging by the authorities.
"Really, this is an intensification of the evacuation, which has been happening gradually," he said.
Katy Athersuch, a communications officer for Doctors Without Borders, one of the aid organizations working at the camp, said the situation was "very relaxed." But she expressed concerns about the lack of information for refugees worried about their fate.
"These people have been sitting in a camp for two and a half months, and now they're being put on a bus with no real explanation about what's happening," she said. "They're scared."
More than a million migrants have entered the European Union via Greece since the beginning of last year, putting immense pressure on the country as it tries to cope with the influx while simultaneously struggling to put its battered economy in order.
The closing of a crucial border crossing on Europe's main migrant route to Germany, where an open-door policy last year made the country a preferred destination for refugees, has stranded more than 50,000 people in Greece.
The migrants are mostly in camps -- some makeshift settlements like the one at Idomeni, others in state-run facilities.
Tensions can run high in such encampments, resulting in violence and, occasionally, riots. Hundreds of migrants were injured in Idomeni last month when Macedonian police officers fired tear gas as a large group tried to storm over the border.
Greek society has remained largely tolerant, although there have been protests in some areas against the creation of reception centers for refugees.
Most of the migrants are eager to continue their journeys toward more affluent countries, particularly Germany and Sweden, but those nations have also tightened their borders, and more stringent controls are likely to remain in place for six more months.
The European Union reached a deal in March to return asylum seekers who took clandestine routes to Greece from Turkey, and the number of arrivals has dropped sharply since the agreement took effect. Fewer than 2,700 migrants arrived in Greece in April, a decline of 90 percent from March, according to Frontex, the European Union's border agency.
Migrant deaths have also dropped, according to figures released on Tuesday by the International Organization for Migration. There were 1,370 deaths on all Mediterranean routes, including the Aegean crossing to Greece from Turkey, from the beginning of the year through this past Saturday, the group said. The total was almost 24 percent lower than in the same period last year, when 1,792 died.
There are fears, however, that the deal on migrants between Turkey and the European Union might be undermined by tensions between Ankara and the bloc over Turkey's reluctance to alter its antiterrorism laws and over the legal victory of three refugees, who successfully argued against the rejection of their asylum applications in Greece. The court deemed Turkey an "unsafe country."
[Source: By Niki Kitsantonis, The New York Times, Athens, 24May16]
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|This document has been published on 27May16 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.|