A new migrant centre for Athens - with thousands in the queue

A migrant woman and child are pictured during a media tour around facilities housing migrants in a suburb of Athens.
A migrant woman and child are pictured during a media tour around facilities housing migrants in a suburb of Athens. REUTERS

ATHENS (AFP) - Hot water, air-conditioning and three meals a day: Athens' new migrant site brings some much needed relief for residents exhausted by war and destruction.

But most will only be able to call this place home for a few days.

A gaggle of Afghan children gathers around a sheet of paper, drawing houses, mountains and fish with felt-tip pens. It could be a scene from any home - until a young man kneels down and writes: "War in Afghanistan."

Welcome to the Greek capital's new "reception centre", hastily built by a government facing a humanitarian crisis as it struggles to accommodate the massive influx of migrants and refugees who are desperately seeking a new life in the European Union.

With brand-new mobile homes, showers and medics on hand, the site is a definite step up for many who have fled horrors and endured a perilous journey to Greece by sea, only to be forced to sleep for weeks in an Athens park.

But the site, which opened Sunday, accommodates only 720 people - a drop in the ocean compared to the staggering 160,000 who have landed on Greek shores since January, more than 20,800 in the last week alone.

The respite is temporary. On average, migrants can stay for only three or four days. After that, they must find somewhere else to sleep - or carry on their journeys to elsewhere in Europe.

"I'm glad to be staying in one of these houses," says 18-year-old Ali Hussaini as he kicks a ball around outside the hut he is sharing with seven other Afghans. Like so many others, he had been sleeping in a park.

Greece's government - which has just been granted a huge international bailout as it struggles with a mountain of debt - has warned that the crisis "surpasses" its ability to cope.

It put together the camp in a few weeks after facing repeated criticism for its response to the migration crisis, with the United Nations saying migrants were facing "shameful" conditions.

"This reception centre will serve as the model for other facilities that will be created in other areas, including the islands," junior migration minister Tassia Christodoulopoulou told reporters at the site on Wednesday.

Humanitarian groups including the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders and Medecins du Monde are on hand to provide assistance.

Red Cross official Areti Kedistou said the agency was providing particular help to "sensitive groups, such as unaccompanied minors or one-parent families".


"This is a very good facility, but it is not enough," says Taher Alizadeh, a member of Athens' Afghan community, noting that thousands more are in need of accommodation.

The Greek Aegean islands close to Turkey have borne the brunt of the influx. Local authorities are overwhelmed, and the thousands of arrivals who have yet to make it to the mainland are usually forced to sleep outdoors, with minimal access to hygiene.

Last week, police used batons and fire extinguishers to beat and spray 2,000 migrants who were waiting for hours to be registered on the island of Kos. Basic services like food, water and latrines ran short.

On Lesbos, scuffles broke out between migrants eager to get off the island as fast as possible.


UNHCR spokesman William Spindler this week again said Greece needed to give better care to the new arrivals.

"The government of Greece has the responsibility of what happens on its territory," he said.

"They need to show much more leadership."

A Greek official on Thursday retorted that authorities had registered 7,000 refugees and migrants in just five days, amid increasingly bitter complaints that some EU countries are bearing much more of the burden than others.

"This is a feat, considering that Europe has identified 8,000 people in four years," Tzanetos Filippakos, deputy secretary-general at the interior ministry told Greek news agency ANA.

Island mayors are resisting plans to create permanent migrant reception facilities for fear of angering residents and scaring away tourists during the crucial summer holiday period.

Even in Athens, the camp is only supposed to be in place until the end of the year, city mayor Yiorgos Kaminis said in a letter to the government on Tuesday.

This should give enough time for the state to find "permanent accommodation" for the migrants, Kaminis said.