IDOMENI, Greece – Refugees and migrants in Greece staged protests Wednesday at the country’s border with Macedonia and on islands near the Turkish coast, with officials still unsure when an international agreement to reduce migration will take full effect.
Several hundred protesters camped out at the border disrupted food distribution by charities in the sprawling tent camp that has sprouted near the village of Idomeni and demanded the border be reopened.
But some thought the protest misguided.
“I think it’s wrong that they’re protesting in this way. We must all get into the relocation program. It’s our only solution,” said Bayan al Assaf. The 21-year-old from Syria’s pulverized Homs was in Idomeni with his parents, 18-year-old sister and 13-year-old brother, and hoped to get to Germany or the Netherlands.
About 150 people also blocked one lane of a highway and a highway flyover by the nearby town of Polykastro, staging a demonstration outside a small hotel frequented mainly by charity workers.
Conditions in Idomeni, where thousands have been stranded since the border shut to refugees earlier this month, have steadily deteriorated, exacerbated by days of rain that have turned the fields into muddy swamps.
On Tuesday, a young Syrian man set himself on fire during a protest there. He was hospitalized with burns to his upper body, doctors said.
Those in Idomeni have found themselves stranded without a clear picture of what their options are.
“We’re staying here without any plan. We don’t know what to do,” said Emad Sukariah, a 54-year-old from the Syrian capital of Damascus travelling with his wife. Three of his children are already in Germany, he said, and one is in Austria.
“I came from the war in Syria to go to Germany, not to stay here,” Sukariah said. “I don’t agree with this move to hold the protests, but the situation has led (the protesters) to it.”
Small protests have also occurred at three detention camps on three Greek islands, where arrested migrants and refugees are waiting to be deported back to Turkey.
All refugees and migrants arriving in Greece are being arrested since Sunday, when the agreement between Turkey and the European Union took effect.
Greek officials could not say when the deportations would start, with outstanding legal and practical issues still to be resolved.
“It is clear that the processes are no longer ones of transit through Greece, but ones of control, and yes, that does mean that some measures are tougher,” Public Order Minister Nikos Toskas said on ERT state television.
“It is not pleasant for anyone, but we are implementing measures that have been agreed with the European Union. Everyone who does not get asylum will be returned to Turkey — that is not something pleasant.”
Toskas said the numbers of migrants now arriving on Greek islands from the nearby Turkish coast was “still very variable. “So we will see what the situation is in a few more days.”
Derek Gatopoulos and Elena Becatoros in Athens contributed.