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New Fences on the Old Continent: Refugee Crisis Pushes Europe to the Brink

Photo Gallery: Europe Divided Photos
AFP

Even as Chancellor Merkel continues pursuing a deal with Turkey, Austria and its Balkan neighbors to the south have taken things into their own hands. With fences going up across the region, Greece is in trouble and the EU can't figure out what to do. By SPIEGEL Staff

A rickety gate of galvanized wire is all that separates desperation from hope. The gate is part of the fence erected in the farming village of Idomeni on the border between Greece and Macedonia. At this moment, some 12,000 people are waiting for it to be opened.

It's the gateway to Europe and the gateway to Germany.

A woman in boots and a blue uniform stands guard in front of the gate. Her name is Foteini Gagaridou and she is an official with the Greek border police -- and she looks exhausted. All it would take for her to open the border would be to pull a thin metal pin out of the latch, but she's not allowed to.

If it were up to her, she says, she would let every single one of these people pass through, just as they were able to do just a few weeks earlier -- across the border to Macedonia and on through Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia to Austria, where they could continue their journey to Germany on what is known as the Balkan Route. It's the same path chosen by hundreds of thousands of refugees last year, but the Balkan Route is now closed. It ends at Gagaridou's wire gate.

Scenes of Desperation

This is where Fortress Europe begins, secured with razor wire and defended with tear gas. Desperate scenes played out here on Monday, reminiscent of those witnessed in Hungary back in September. A group of young men used a steel beam as a battering ram to break down the gate. Rocks flew through the air as the gate flew off its hinges, prompting the volleying of tear gas cartridges and stun grenades from the Macedonian side. Men could be seen running and children screaming. One woman lay on the ground with her daughter, crying.

This frontier has become Europe's new southern border, with Greece serving as Europe's waiting room -- and the possible setting for a humanitarian disaster. Around 32,000 migrants are currently stranded in the country, a number that the Greek Interior Ministry says could quickly swell to 70,000. The aid organization Doctors Without Borders is even expecting 200,000 refugees. Greece's reception camps are already full, and the highly indebted country is stretched well beyond its capacity.

The decision as to whether and how many refugees will be able to cross the border isn't one for border guard Gagaridou to make. Rather, it will be taken by the Macedonian government. Macedonia, for its part, is pointing fingers at countries further to the north, noting it is they who have tightened their borders, especially Austria, which created a chain reaction of border closures last week. The countries apparently felt they could wait no longer for the broader European solution German Chancellor Angela Merkel has promised will result from a special EU summit scheduled for March 7.

Merkel wants to see Turkey stem the flow of refugees and put a stop to the exodus to Europe. European leaders agreed on Feb. 18 that this plan remains the "priority." But Austria and the Balkan states nevertheless moved ahead and closed their borders.

The New Europe of Fences

Idomeni has become a symbol of the current political chaos in Europe and the crumbling of a joint European refugee policy. The town is emblematic of the new Europe of fences. It is here that German Chancellor Angela Merkel's open border policies have met their end. Under Austria's leadership, the Balkan Route has been closed in the precise move Berlin had hoped to avoid.

Merkel has begun warning of the EU's disintegration "into small states" that will be unable to compete in a globalized world, as well as of the possibility that border controls might soon be reintroduced all across Europe.

Were Europe in agreement, it would be unproblematic to accommodate 2-3 million refugees, given the Continent's population of a half billion people. From such a perspective, the current spat actually seems somewhat ridiculous. But in the run up to next week's EU summit, Europe is gripped by strife. Europe's greatest achievement, the opening of its borders through the Schengen agreement, is at stake, and the increasingly toxic atmosphere between countries has reached alarming dimensions.

The Greek Waiting Room Zoom
DER SPIEGEL

The Greek Waiting Room

First, Austria decided not to invite Greece to the West Balkan Summit the week before last, at which an agreement between 10 countries was reached to close the borders. Athens was rejected because it is viewed as having followed a policy of simply waving refugees through. In response, Greece withdrew its ambassador from Vienna and cancelled planned meetings in Athens with the Austrian interior minister. Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico in turn warned Greece that if the country didn't move to secure its borders that, "there will be one single hotspot and it will be called Greece." Perhaps, he added, it may be necessary to sacrifice Greece for the sake of Europe's well-being.

The refugees are encountering a Europe that was already fatigued and disunited even before their arrival, weakened as it had been by years of the euro crisis, frequent disagreements between Germany and France (once the motors of European unification), anxiety over the special wishes demanded by Britain and the threat of Russia's aggressive stance in the east. In a Europe where immigration policies are among the most controversial issues and right-wing populism is on the rise seemingly everywhere, nationalist tendencies have emerged as a frequent specter since the very beginning of the refugee crisis.

The Limits of German Power

Europe's weakness, though, is also the product of a Germany that is having trouble fitting into its leadership role on the Continent. For decades, German politicians have sought to eschew expressing Germany's own interests, instead emphasizing what is best for Europe and trying to be the best Atlanticists possible, exercising restraint when it came to their role in the EU.

This changed during the euro crisis. Merkel took advantage of the country's economic strength in order to pursue German interests. Paramount among these interests, she believed, was a stable euro, and to achieve that she imposed levels of austerity on Southern Europe that left her at times looking like a stern and scolding school teacher. Germany assumed a dominant role in Europe.

That may also have influenced Merkel at the outbreak of the refugee crisis to announce policies that had been conceived in Germany -- with her now famous line "We can do it" -- but that would also inevitably have consequences for the rest of Europe. She did this without consulting with others. In that sense, this sentence, as nice as it may have sounded, was also a pretension to power. It hid a European "we" inside the German one. No previous chancellor had done such a thing before, but the limits of German power were quickly exposed. Rather than slipping into Merkel's "we," most of Germany's partners instead formulated their own positions and blocked the admission of any appreciable number of refugees or pursued their own strategies for keeping them at bay.

Indeed, the notion of a united Europe is currently under extreme duress, and no summit or compromise on refugees is going to be able to fix that overnight. The Europe of today is a collection of states that have become dangerously foreign to each other.

For Chancellor Merkel, Monday's special EU summit is decisive because she wants to show in the run-up to important regional elections in Germany on March 13 that her refugee policies are actually starting to have an impact. To the majority of voters in her party, the conservative Christian Democratic Union, this means lowering the number of refugees arriving in Germany.

Merkel is still focusing primarily on a deal with Turkey. Prior to the summit, Germany and Brussels launched a significant diplomatic offensive to make the meeting a success. European Council President Donald Tusk visited Turkey on Thursday, preceded by the deputy chief of the European Commission, who traveled regularly to Ankara for talks. The message from Europe to Turkey is that the action plan agreed to in the fall needs to be implemented.

In order to be able to push Ankara to take back as many of refugees as possible, Greece is seeking to declare Turkey as a safe country of origin. Last week, Ankara signaled to EU officials for the first time that it could imagine the possibility of at least taking back economic migrants.

'A Turning Point in Refugee Policy'

In order to avoid appearing totally isolated in Europe, Merkel has recently set about slowly, but very clearly, transforming the main emphasis of her refugee policies. Although Merkel, like many others, initially pushed for the distribution of the refugees across the EU, the German chancellor is now emphasizing border protection as the highest priority.

No one in the Chancellery is speaking anymore of the kinds of humanitarian gestures seen in September, when Merkel opened Germany's borders to the thousands of refugees stranded in Budapest. The German public mood has changed and the populace would not be pleased were Berlin to allow the refugees currently trapped at the Macedonian border to come to Germany. Chancellery officials may view the crisis in Idomeni as proof that border closures lead to chaos, but the closures have been advantageous to Merkel nonetheless, even if Berlin officials aren't saying as much. The number of refugees coming to Germany, after all, has dropped significantly.

Graphic: The Balkan Route closes down. Zoom
SPIEGEL ONLINE

Graphic: The Balkan Route closes down.

Others in Germany, though, are admitting the advantages. "There has been turning point in refugee policy through the closure of most of the Balkan Route," Bavarian Governor Horst Seehofer told SPIEGEL. "Germany is a beneficiary." It is a statement that puts Seehofer in agreement with the government in Vienna, which has accused Germany of making a public fuss about the border closures while profiting from the development at the same time.

Ugly Images, Welcome by Some

As ugly as the images coming from Greece are -- and they even have the potential to get worse in the coming days -- they are unlikely to cause too many European governments to lose any sleep. They send a message of deterrence to those who might be considering making the trip. On Thursday, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, whose country currently holds the six-month rotating presidency of the EU, said he wants to see no new refugees arriving in Greece in the future. "We need to bring it back to a level from which we can see zero," he said. "It has to be really considerably lower than it is today."

During a visit with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on Thursday, European Council President Donald Tusk appealed to "economic migrants" not to come to Europe. "Do not believe the smugglers," Tusk said. "Do not risk your lives and your money. It is all for nothing. Greece or any other European country will no longer be a transit country."

Many of the migrants now being held up in Greece -- the majority of whom want to continue on to Germany -- are assembling in and around Athens. Ferries transport them from the Greek islands to the harbor at Piraeus in the Athens urban area. They disembark the ferries by the hundreds, with weary faces and carrying plastic bags and backpacks. They often have children in tow and can sometimes be seen pushing the elderly in wheelchairs out of the ship's belly. Sometimes a ship arrives carrying as many as a thousand refugees.

Piraeus these days feels more like a catchment basin than a harbor. It's not known precisely how many refugees are currently staying in the port area, but estimates put the figure anywhere from 1,500 to 5,000. They've used towels and cardboard boxes to build shacks, with tents erected in the rare places that have any lawn. Laundry dangles from seemingly every small palm or spruce tree as it dries. Families are camped out in the waiting halls.

Camping Out in Athens

Meanwhile, hundreds of Afghans are spending their nights on Victoria Square in Athens, where they string up plastic tarpaulins from bare tree branches to protect themselves from the rain. When asked how she feels about the scenario unfolding in front of the window panes, a café owner breaks down in tears.

Thousands are now residing outside the city center, for example at the old Elliniko airport along Athens' southern coast across from Aegina island. Journalists are currently banned from entering these "official" camps, allegedly because those helping the refugees have been overwhelmed by the media attention. It is largely Afghan nationals who are being housed here, people who have little to no chance of being able to continue their journey. There are no shower facilities and only nine Porta-Potties can be found in front of the entrance. The stench in the terminal building is oppressive, with heaps of trash piling up between tents and blankets.

A small and wiry Greek woman named Hala runs back and forth between the tents. She holds her mobile phone in front of her mouth like a Walkie-Talkie. She's the sole person responsible for ensuring that the hundreds of people staying here are provided with water and at least something to eat. Hala says the situation here is "surreal."

Scenes like this are one of the reasons that Greece will top the agenda at Monday's summit. Merkel wants to prevent the country from drifting into chaos. "We did not keep Greece in the euro to abandon the country now," she says.

On Wednesday, the European Commission announced that €700 million in emergency aid would be earmarked for Greece and other countries heavily affected by the refugee crisis through 2018. Just recently, the EU dispatched experts to the affected areas in order to work together with the UN Refugee Agency to build up the infrastructure necessary for providing care to the refugees. It's the first time that a humanitarian relief mission has ever been conducted inside the borders of the European Union.

Fending for Themselves

The Greek government itself ignored the refugee crisis for as long as it could. It pursued a strategy of merely waving the refugees through as they arrived in the country. Athens knew that it would soon be stuck with the entire burden if it didn't. And that, it appears, is exactly what is happening now.

The thousands of refugees in the tent city at Idomeni have been left to fend for themselves because, officially, the camp still doesn't even exist. The Greek government is also hopelessly overstrained in other places. For a long time, the country wasn't even registering refugees after making the crossing from Turkey to one of the Aegean Islands. After his election in January 2015, Tspiras at least established a Migration Ministry, albeit with a miniscule staff of 20.

In October, his government promised to set up shelter capacity for another 50,000 people within three months. In addition, so-called "hotspots" were to be set up on five Aegean islands to receive and count refugees and then transfer them to the mainland.

But very little happened. By January, only a single reception facility had been opened, on Lesbos. This is why the Greek prime minister has involved the last institution in his country that is still able to act reliably and quickly: the military. Greek soldiers are now to erect tent camps and repurpose barracks as provisional living spaces in Athens, Thessaloniki and elsewhere. The decision came so unexpectedly that some mayors only learned from the newspapers that their municipalities would soon be home to thousands of migrants.

Giannis Mouzalas openly admits that his country is not able to handle what is currently taking place. Greece, he notes, is still suffering badly from the effects of the euro crisis. Mouzalas, the minister responsible for immigration, is sitting with tired eyes in his office at the Interior Ministry. He repeatedly points out that it is a humanitarian crisis. "Actually, everything," he answers when asked what kind of help his country needs the most. He goes down the list: containers, personnel, tents, food, medical assistance. And money, of course.

'What Are We Supposed to Do?'

"The situation in Piraeus is horrifying," Mouzalas says. The faster images of the misery are disseminated around the world, the better, he says, so that aid might finally arrive. And it needs to come quickly -- before Greece sinks into chaos.

Mouzalas, who isn't a member of the ruling Syriza party himself, nevertheless defends his government's policies. He says there was never a time when Greek officials simply "waved refugees through," as they have been accused of doing. "What are we supposed to do if they don't want to be here?" he asks.

When asked how the Greek and European refugee problem should be solved, he is vague, saying only: "We'll see." He lights a cigarette and says he hopes that the plan being hammered out with Turkey will be successful. "That's actually our last chance," he says.

Ironically, Mouzalas says, relations between Germany and Greece are better now -- in the middle of the refugee crisis -- than they have been in years. Germany has provided extensive help to Greece from the very beginning, he says, particularly by taking in so many people.

The place where the dramatic developments in recent weeks got their start is the Spielfeld border crossing on the Slovenian-Austrian border. Only 80 asylum applications per day are now being accepted here, with 3,200 people being allowed through if they intend to travel onward to Germany. By imposing such limits, Austria set off a domino effect throughout the Balkans, essentially closing off the route all the way down to Macedonia.

Officer Michael Puchegger only allows those refugees to pass who don't make any mistakes. Their passport can't be forged, they cannot have an entry in the international criminal registry and they have to give the right answers to the questions they are asked at the border.

It is here -- where not that long ago some 8,000 refugees were passing through each day -- where the clash of cultures can be better observed than anywhere else. Refugees who are afraid of Fortress Europe encounter a Europe that is afraid of refugees.

Questions at the Border

On a recent Tuesday, Nayah, from Aleppo, covered in black from the top of her head to the soles of her feet like her mother, drags herself and her three children the final few meters to the Austrian flag. Aside from her, there are no other refugees around. The corridor she walks through is secured on both sides by razor wire and there is a massive metal door at the end. In between are metal turnstiles and a maze of fencing.

The first questions are simple: Family name, first name, former place of residence. Then comes the decisive moment: Where do you want to go? "Almania," says Nayah. The interpreter translates: "Germany."

"Why Germany?" the police ask. Silence and mumbling comes in response.

The correct answer only comes following a bit of friendly assistance from the interpreter: "Because we want to ask for asylum in Germany." "Five for Germany," the policeman calls out, and waves the Syrians through.

Wrong answers at this point in the journey would be: "I want to go to Germany to work as a teacher," or "because my brother lives there." Those who slip up, even just once, are sent back to Slovenia, and from there, if they don't apply for asylum, onwards to Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia and Greece.

It is rare that Austria takes on the kind of leading role on the diplomatic stage that it has in recent days. "Normally, we prefer to hide and to say: Austria is such a small country, we would like to pay the children's rate for our security, please," jokes one high-ranking official in the Austrian Foreign Ministry. But these days, the situation is reversed, with Vienna -- in this existential EU crisis -- setting the tone regardless of what Berlin or Brussels thinks. It's almost as though Austria once again wants to flex its muscles in the Balkans, its Habsburg-era sphere of influence.

The push by normally docile Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann has triggered annoyance in Berlin and unequivocal rage in Athens. On Tuesday, Greek Prime Minister Tsipras even went so far as to accuse Faymann of panic and "spasmodic moves" due to upcoming presidential elections in the country.

Faymann, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ), is indeed under pressure. On the one hand, 29-year-old Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, a member of Faymann's conservative coalition partner, the Austrian People's Party (ÖVP), is wildly popular. On the other, though, the right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), led by Heinz-Christian Strache, is leading in nationwide public opinion polls.

Fear in the East

It has only been since Faymann freed himself from unquestioned loyalty to Angela Merkel that his party's poll numbers have risen slightly. "Austria is not a waiting room for Germany," Faymann said during European Council President Donald Tusk's visit to Vienna on Tuesday. Germany, the Austrian chancellor continued, should pick up its refugees from Greece and countries neighboring Syria in the future. "In the refugee crisis, we need common European solutions," Faymann told SPIEGEL. "As such, I am proposing a fund to which every EU member contributes, just like with the bank bailouts. The money should be used to cover the costs of the asylum applicants."

On a per capita basis, Austria received more asylum applicants last year than Germany did. That means that criticism from Austria carries much greater weight than that from countries to its east, where opposition is even stronger. In most formerly communist EU member states, the electorates are largely xenophobic and the belief is widespread that refugees would bring epidemics, terrorism and Sharia law into their countries. The influx, many in Eastern Europe believe, is but the advance guard of an expansive Islam seeking to take over the Christian West.

Far-right parties across the region have profited from such fears, while Czech President Milos Zeman has taken the lead in his country. "The Islamic refugees are bringing Sharia into our country. That means unfaithful women will be stoned, thieves will have their hands chopped off and our beautiful girls will be forced to wear the burqa," he has said.

From the Eastern European perspective, the refugee crisis is a German problem. "It's a simple concept. I invite guests over and when I decide there are too many, I knock on my neighbor's door and say: Take care of my guests," Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico said in mid-February.

The construction of Fortress Europe, which was never supposed to be built, is quite far along in Eastern Europe and in the Balkans. There are fences between Turkey and Bulgaria, between Hungary and Serbia and between Greece and Macedonia. Slovenia has once again begun using Yugoslavia-era customs barracks on the Austrian border. There are still alternative routes leading through Croatia and Albania, but soon, the Balkans will only be traversable to those with even more money.

In the Serbian town of Sid, authorities have established a kind of preliminary deportation station. Here, roughly halfway between Greece and Austria, those refugees who have been picked up along the trail are divided into groups, with only Syrians and Iraqis allowed to continue their journeys north. Afghans are now forced to turn around as are those from the Maghreb, many of whom try to claim they are from Syria. Croatian police check out the migrants right on Serbian territory.

All Eyes on Turkey

Construction of the fortress is continuing regardless of what the EU decides at its summit on Monday. Indeed, the expectations are low for the gathering. It's not even clear if the summit will result in a summit statement, as is normally the case. Whereas Germany would like to see a binding document, Poland and Hungary don't, arguing that the focus of the meeting will only be on the implementation of previously agreed measures.

Angela Merkel's top priority is a deal with Turkey in an effort to protect the EU's external borders. The Greek border is of particular concern and both NATO and the European border control agency Frontex have been tapped to reimpose order there.

Officials in the Chancellery believe that the first step must be that of bringing illegal immigration into the EU almost completely to a stop. All other issues will get short shrift at the summit. The idea of establishing mandatory refugee quotas for EU member states is dead. Instead, Ankara is to be offered that a "Coalition of the Willing" will accept refugees directly from Turkey, but only after the border is secured -- if the country agrees to take back economic migrants.

As such, Turkey is to be the guest of honor at the summit. First, EU heads of state and government will meet together for lunch with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu before EU members meet amongst themselves without their guest from Ankara.

EU politicians are already talking about significantly increasing their offer of €3 billion in financial aid for Turkey. European Commissioner Günther Oettinger told SPIEGEL: "Europe should offer Turkey further financial support beyond 2017. When it comes to the regular payment of benefits that Turkey offers refugees in the form of shelter and food, annual sums quickly add up to six or 7 billion."

Thus far, Turkey hasn't done much to stop migrant smugglers or to prevent refugees from traveling onward to Greece. To be sure, the EU implementation report that will be presented at Monday's summit is careful to praise every truck and boat full of refugees stopped by Turkish authorities. But there has not been a sufficient reduction in the number of refugees crossing the Aegean into Greece. In February, 56,335 refugees crossed the narrow strip of sea from Turkey's west coast to the Greek islands -- for a daily average of 1,943.

Traffic at the Border

For Europe, it is also alarming that the share of Syrians among those now arriving to Greece is plunging. "The numbers reflect a dropping percentage of Syrians (from 69 to 38 percent) and a growing percentage of Afghans (from 18 to 24 percent) and Iraqis (from 8 to 25 percent)," according to the report.

How does the EU intend to confront such migration pressures in the future? How can the Schengen agreement, which guarantees border-free travel within the EU, and the Dublin Regulation, which regulates asylum applications, be saved? The dangers to Europe as currently constituted are not just visible at the razor-wire fences in Southern Europe, but also in Kiefersfelden, the Bavarian mountain town on the border with Austria.

On "travel days," when vacationers and day-trippers make their return journey toward Munich from the mountains around Kitzbühl, traffic now backs up in the town. Locals hardly go out on the streets anymore and customers from Austria, who used to regularly frequent the town's shops, no longer come at all. The reason for the changes is the fact that the nearby A93 highway has for months been reduced to a single lane due to border controls. The result is a traffic jam stretching almost 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) into Austria. And a huge amount of traffic in Kiefersfelden as people try to avoid the backup.

"If there was a fire at peak traffic times, not even the fire department would be able to make it through," says Mayor Hajo Gruber. He says the Bavarian interior minister has promised that traffic on the A93 will no longer be reduced to a single lane for border checks in the future. "I'm hoping for some relief," Gruber says. "The federal police badly needs more personnel and different structures if it wants to avoid these traffic jams."

The Bavarian threat to use its own state police to implement strict border controls in the future is also taking shape. The Bavarian Interior Ministry and state police force have already asked Gruber where they might be able to set up mobile office units for border control officers.

The Costs of Losing Schengen

The recent hindrances to cross-border traffic are minor in comparison to the drama taking place in Southern Europe. But it shows that a Europe of open borders is endangered everywhere, even in places where cohesive trans-border regions have developed.

According to a European Commission report, the reintroduction of internal border controls within the Schengen area would reduce EU economic output over a 10-year period by between €500 billion and €1.4 trillion. Just the direct costs for border controls will cost between €5 billion and €18 billion annually.

Europe is risking its future by closing its borders. Not only will its economic power suffer, but also its global political influence. In the concert of large geopolitical powers, individual European countries do not have a loud voice, not even Germany. The United States and China are only interested in the EU as a whole. Size is decisive. If Europe is unable to present itself as a unity, it will be marginalized.

Nothing would make European dissent more clear than the reintroduction of controlled borders on the Continent. Furthermore, the European project lives, both at home and abroad, from the successful unification of erstwhile enemies. And the current disagreement over refugee policy has threatened to destroy that unity. It is akin to gambling with the Continent's future. Europe in recent decades has become known as a liberal continent, whereas Fortress Europe would scare away the very people the countries of Europe would most like to attract: students, experts, engineers and scientists.

Mid-May to mid-July marks a decisive phase for the Schengen area. That's when the temporary border controls currently in place -- allowed by the Schengen agreement in "exceptional circumstances" -- are set to expire. If Greece is unable to tighten up its external border by then, which seems likely, then the internal border controls may be extended by two years.

Progress on the Refugee Issue

The European Commission plans to present a roadmap on Monday. It calls for the removal of all internal border controls, including those undertaken by Germany, should the EU's external borders be adequately protected by the end of the year. Berlin has thrown its support behind the plan.

In the next several weeks, the Commission intends to make progress on the refugee issue with a variety of initiatives. Among them is the reform of the Dublin Regulation. The rule requires refugees to apply for asylum in the first EU country in which they set foot, but it has been de facto suspended since the beginning of the crisis. The Commission proposal calls for asylum applicants to be distributed among EU member states for the duration of their application proceedings. That would shift the burden away from member states on the EU periphery to all European countries. In addition, it calls for the alignment of the divergent asylum standards applied by member states.

Finally, the European border control agency Frontex could be expanded into a real border protection agency. That, at least, is the proposal made by the Netherlands, in its capacity as the current EU Council presidency. Greece in particular would like more support when it comes to border protection. But a proposal calling for European border officials to be deployed on the borders of an EU member state even over objections from that member state is a controversial one. Countries like Poland and Greece see that as a significant violation of their sovereignty.

In Piraeus, the port city next to Athens, the huge blue cargo doors slowly sink to the quay as the cavernous ferry opens. The sound of chains scraping across the concrete and a shrill beeping fills the warm air as Blue Star 1 lands. The trip from Mytilini, on the island of Lesbos, via Chios to Athens normally takes 11 hours, but the Blue Star 1 arrives only after a five-and-a-half hour delay due to strong winds on the northern Aegean.

Doaa Darwish, 25, sits on a low wall in front of the Pericles ferry terminal. She is wearing leggings and rubber boots, a silver ring pierces her left eyebrow. Behind her, baby sleepers are drying on a laurel bush in the midday sun. Doaa Darwish is from Yarmuk, a suburb of Damascus -- and she has finally arrived in Europe along with her three-month-old son Alaa and her two younger sisters. They traveled through the war zone to the Turkish city of Antakya and then on to the Greek islands of Farmakonissi and Leros via the city of Izmir on Turkey's west coast. She medicated her baby for the boat trips so he would stay calm.

Stuck for 10 Days

The trip took 25 days and was so stressful that Doaa stopped lactating. Her sister Walaa heads off in search of powdered milk. The sisters hope to continue their journey as soon as possible, with their first destination being the city of Idomeni on Greece's border with Macedonia. Doaa's husband, who is in Berlin, has sent her the telephone numbers of men who can help her get to the border. One of them wants to bring her directly to Macedonia. But his asking price is high.

"We are three young Syrians with an infant," says Doaa. She thinks that will convince the Macedonian border guards to let them cross and will help them as they travel onwards to the north. The youngest, Esmaa, has only just turned 14. She had to come along because, as a minor, she is the one that makes them eligible for family reunification once they get to Berlin. Only then can they apply for their parents from Damascus to join them.

Doaa says that she is so agitated that she can't sleep anymore, adding that, from what she has seen so far, she isn't particularly fond of Greece. She says it's disgusting here and that she has tried to avoid visiting the restrooms. Instead of eating, she smokes. The sisters take turns charging their smartphones. One of them always stays on the wall in front of the laurel bush, the only place where they can get free Wi-Fi reception.

When Walaa comes back, she looks horrified. She says: "Some people have been stuck here for 10 days already!" But that won't happen to them, she says. Doaa nods.

By Giorgos Christides, Julia Amalia Heyer, Walter Mayr, Peter Müller, Ralf Neukirch, Conny Neumann, René Pfister, Jan Puhl, Mathieu von Rohr and Christoph Scheuermann

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1. Time for sanctions against Germany?
Inglenda2 03/04/2016
The way refugees are being treated is a disgrace, but it is the consequence of poor leadership! One way to deal with this question, would be to scrap completely the European Commission. This undemocratic EU organ not only costs a great deal of money, but has done nothing worthwhile since to came into existence. Normally one could expect the European parliament to decide on any form of immigration roadmap. However, when these MPs fail to do their duty, it is only shrewd for individual member states to take their own actions. The interference of an non-elected Commission only makes the matter worse. The Dublin Regulation, which quite rightly requires refugees to apply for asylum in the first EU country in which they set foot, has been contravened by more than one of the member states. These are the countries who should now pay the price for what they have done! Pushing responsibility on to other states, which correctly carry out their obligations to the Union, is neither fair to the citizens of those countries, nor is it likely to provide an environment, in which refugees will feel welcome.
2. overpopulation crisis
branepilot 03/05/2016
The Orwellian distortion of language in modern political discourse makes it impossible to process reality. This is not a 'refugee crisis'. It is an overpopulation crisis in the Islamic and developing world. Syria collapsed because it became overpopulated. Afghanistan is ungovernable because it became overpopulated. The populations of source countries for refugees is on track to double in coming decades. Unless Europe is prepared to welcome Billions of overpopulation refugees from the developing world, at some point it must close its borders. The question is, when?
3.
Claire Forlani 03/05/2016
"while Czech President Milos Zeman has taken the lead in his country" Yeah, not really. Zeman is a clown with no actual power. Nobody takes him seriously.
4. Thank you for this piece
petertx 03/05/2016
This is really good journalism and I have recommended it to numerous friends. With events unfolding so rapidly, it is tricky to capture the moment at the human level whilst at the same time analysing the thinking (if indeed there is any thinking) in the chancelleries of Europe. So congratulations!
5.
praha7 03/05/2016
If Merkel, cheered on by the majority of Germans, had not pursued such a blatant Germany first policy during the ongoing economic crisis, she might have found other EU governments and their populace more accommodating. Coupled with this Germanocentric policy and the suspicion of mainly Muslim migrants has made the acceptance of the migrants in most EU countries almost impossible. Just to add that this suspicion cannot be dismissed as xenophobia as it so often is. Why would countries want migrants from the Middle East when they have seen what the some of the descendants of previous migrants are capable of i, e the attacks carried out in France,Spain and the UK?
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