When Borders Close

The situation was grim on March 10 in Eidomeni, Greece, where 14,000 desperate people, mostly Syrian and Iraqi families, had congregated in the hope of entering neighboring Macedonia and eventually reaching Western Europe. I had accompanied Assistant Secretary Victoria Nuland to this border crossing point to talk with refugees, meet with Greek officials and humanitarian aid workers, and find ways to ease the plight of a growing number of stranded people.

Eidomeni changed from a transit point to an informal camp in early March when countries to the north of Greece began closing their borders to the flow of refugees and migrants. Like dominos, country after country first limited -- then shut -- borders, with Macedonia finally announcing a full closure of its border just days before we arrived.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Populations, Refugees, (second left) and Migration and Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland, (second right) visit the Greek border camp near Eidomeni, on March 10, 2016. [AP photo]

Now, thousands of camping tents dotted the landscape. It had been raining in northern Greece for three days by the time we arrived, and people were living in mud fields trying to keep warm beneath rain-soaked tents. With only 80 toilets for 14,000 people sanitation was not just a problem; it was a health risk. 

But Eidomeni was never meant to be a camp and should not be: it is difficult to secure, it is too close to the border and electrical wires and train tracks pose further dangers (already a few people have been accidentally electrocuted). International and non-governmental organizations have rushed to provide basic food, water and sanitation to the growing number of people trapped at the border.

Refugee children walk along railway tracks at a makeshift migrant camp in the northern Greek border post of Eidomeni.  [AP Photo]

Faced with the new reality that it was now hosting over 48,000 migrants -- and potentially hosting them for a much longer period of time, the Greek government has begun to build more accommodation centers to house and care for them. We visited one such facility -- the Diavata Relocation Center -- not far from Eidomeni. In two-and-a-half weeks, the Greek government, with help from international organizations, set up a 2,100 person camp, providing semi-permanent shelters, with regular food distribution, adequate toilet facilities and even a playground for kids. The Government has created a coordination group, led by the military, which is charged with quickly building more accommodation/relocation sites. 

With the closure of the Balkans route to Western Europe, the migrants, too, are adjusting their expectations. In Eidomeni, we met with an Iraqi husband and his pregnant wife who had been languishing there for over two weeks, after fleeing the ISIL-held town of Mosul. Now that the border was closed, they had just made the decision to file an ‘expression of interest’ in the European Union's (EU) relocation scheme with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a program under which the EU pledged to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy to other EU countries.  These were only two of the 1,500 ‘expressions of interest’ UNHCR received in one day. 

Humanitarian workers prepare new beds for the migrants in the camp at the northern Greek border post of Eidomeni, Greece. [AP Photo]

Everyone I met in Greece praised the tremendous generosity of the Greek people who have rushed in to help refugees and migrants. I visited a clinic that provides free medical assistance to refugees and migrants in downtown Athens and found more than a dozen people waiting outside -- they were third year medical students, queueing up to volunteer at the clinic. Greece should not have to manage this crisis alone. 

On March 18 the EU and Turkey announced an agreement that, if properly implemented, would be an important step in addressing the current crisis in Europe. We hope the agreement will mean an end to illegal smuggling operations that prey on and exploit vulnerable migrants; that it will lead to rapid registration and processing of asylum claims, humane handling of migrant returns, quick provision of promised support to Greece and Turkey; and that EU member states meet their commitments to relocate and resettle asylum seekers and refugees.

A woman holds a baby at the northern Greek border point of Eidomeni, Greece. [AP Photo]

To that end, so far this fiscal year, the United States is providing nearly $24 million in humanitarian assistance to UNHCR for activities related to the refugee emergency in Europe, including activities in both Greece and Turkey and an additional $601 million in life-saving assistance for those affected by the war in Syria with the hope that by increasing humanitarian aid in Syria and neighboring countries, Syrians will not be forced to seek sanctuary abroad at greater personal peril. 

About the Author: Nancy Izzo Jackson is a career member of the Senior Executive Service, and serves as Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, overseeing the Offices of Assistance Programs for Europe, Central Asia, and the Americas; Policy and Resource Planning; and the Comptroller.



Nasra M.
May 11, 2016
I have ability to work with UNHCR in violence places like , Syria , Iraq , Palestine because i was born in Somalia , even though I am from Somali British protectorate named Somaliland peace for the last 19 years , but i can understand the situation , plus i have ability to work with people with pleasing personality, also i am fresh graduate of Political science and International relation i can understand , how critical is in Middle east , its my dream to get that opportunity to work with UNHCR ones in my life time .
A migrant man with a child on his shoulders looks through a fence near the border station of Eidomeni, Greece.
Posted by Nancy Jackson
March 23, 2016


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