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Migrants Stranded In Greece Are Left With Few Options


Thousands of migrants trying to get to northern Europe are stranded in Greece now that Balkan countries have suddenly closed their borders. The European Union says it will send asylum-seekers to Turkey. That plan is not popular with those who've just risked their lives to cross the Mediterranean Sea. As Joanna Kakissis reports from Athens, many are not sure what to do.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Zakaria Abdulrahim and his family - his wife, his sister and six children - first arrived at the port of Piraeus two weeks ago. They headed toward Northern Europe, but they did not get very far. They got stuck at a makeshift migrant camp at the Greek-Macedonian border.

ZAKARIA ABDULRAHIM: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: "I was surprised that this was Europe," he says. "Is this the Europe I was dreaming about?"

ZEINAB: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: His sister, Zeinab, explains that it was like living in a swamp with everyone full of germs and lice. She started to worry that her children would get a disease. She was appalled by the violence of the Macedonian police.

ZEINAB: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: "Honestly," she says, "Bashar al-Assad's missiles were more merciful." So the family returned to Piraeus, where they're now sleeping outside at the port. They're hoping the United Nations' relief agency can help them.

ABDULRAHIM: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: "We only have two choices," Zakaria Abdulrahim says, "go back to Syria or wait for the U.N. to help us reach our destination." But few asylum-seekers realize that even if they are relocated, it's unlikely that they will go to their preferred destination, Germany. The program, which is run with the European Union, is supposed to resettle 160,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees from Greece and Italy. Ketty Kehayoglou from UNHCR in Greece says they haven't even come close.

KETTY KEHAYOGLOU: This program goes very slowly because there aren't enough places offered by European countries so, so far, there have been only 600 people that left since November.

KAKISSIS: Several Central and Eastern European countries have refused to accept refugees, yet hundreds of asylum-seekers continue to arrive on Greek islands every day so the EU is trying to work out a deal to return them to Turkey. UNHCR spokesman William Spindler voiced his concern about that plan earlier this week.


WILLIAM SPINDLER: We are concerned about any arrangement that involves the blanket return of all individuals from one country to another without sufficiently spelled out refugee protection safeguards in keeping with international obligations.

KAKISSIS: Mohammad Khaled refuses to return to Turkey. The former schoolteacher from Aleppo, Syria, says his wife and two young children struggled to survive there in the months after they fled Syria. He says his heart is still set on reaching Germany.

MOHAMMAD KHALED: I don't love life in Turkey. I believe Germany love Syria people because Germany government a human government.

KAKISSIS: He climbs back into the tent he has pitched at the port of Piraeus, where he says he and his family will wait until Germany lets them in. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.

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