‘Reservoir of souls’: Refugees fill old stadiums and crumbling airport in Greece

(CNN) — For many refugees, Athens is no longer the gateway to Europe.

But they continue to arrive, with an average of 1,800 people per day in February.

Some come by ferry…

After hours spent crossing dark seas on boats shared with tourists, the refugees arrive at the port of Piraeus in Athens, with bales of blankets, tents rolled up and babies in their arms.

They dream of traveling through Greece to Macedonia and eventually, they believe, will be a safe haven like Germany and Sweden.

However, since Macedonia began restricting refugee access – allowing only a few dozen Syrians and Iraqis to cross the border each day – people have been piling up in Greece.

Some 35,000 migrants are currently stranded in the country, fueling fears that Greece is turning into a giant refugee camp, or a “warehouse of souls”, as the country’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has described it. .

Some reach the border between Greece and Macedonia…

Thousands of people – men, women and children – are trapped in unsanitary conditions near Idomeni, a small town in northern Greece. There they run into the new barbed wire security fence in Macedonia.

The floor is covered in garbage; some remains float in large puddles of cold, wet water. Food and hygiene facilities are insufficient. Meanwhile, Macedonian guards guard the border with assault rifles.

But others don’t go that far…

Many refugees do not make it to the border, and if they do, they are taken by bus back to Athens.

Across the Greek capital, refugee tents, laundry bins and groups of homeless people have popped up in unexpected places.

The UN Refugee Agency filled a baseball stadium, built for the 2004 Olympics, with white tents. It’s an ironic legacy for the sporting event, which costs huge sums of money: many facilities have quietly deteriorated since the famous international athletes left.

The Olympic Hockey Stadium also received an unexpected boost by temporarily hosting 3,000 refugees. Today, the bright fabrics that adorn the stadium stands are not the banners of the teams, but the clothes and clothes that have been washed and belong to families in Afghanistan and beyond, which are dried in the sun of Athens. .

Inside, families try to create some privacy for themselves – and their many young children – by hanging up scraps of fabric. There aren’t many supplies, though: just gray UN blankets, thin mattresses, and a few toys. There’s the occasional crib, but no bed in sight.

Mustafa Saidi from Kabul, Afghanistan, lives here with his wife and daughters aged three and nine.

It took them a month to get to Greece, sneakily driving and boating: “It was so dangerous,” he told CNN. “We spent two days in the desert. No water. No camp. No food. We could have died.”

Like many people here, he just wants to go to Germany, but since the border is closed, he just says “We pray to God”.

And others ended up in an abandoned airport…

The faded undercarriages of disused planes slowly rust on the tarmac of Athens’ former Hellinikon International Airport, a reminder of its past glory when it welcomed very different travelers from Athens.

The airport closed in 2001 and part of this vast area has been turned into the Olympic Park which, according to official figures from the Greek government, currently protects 4,120 people.

Veiled women hold babies in their arms as children and men stand on the balcony of the airport’s domestic arrivals hall. They are surrounded by the debris of lives that they hastily abandoned: heaps of old clothes, boxes, nylon bags.

Most come from Afghanistan, while others come from Pakistan, Iran and Morocco. They were forbidden to cross the border because they are considered to come from “safe” countries.

Inside the airport building, a sea of ​​brightly colored tents and cheap blankets cover every free section of the floor, a temporary home for those who have arrived in Athens but now face an uncertain future.

Young people try to pass the time in every possible way, talking, sleeping on the floor or waiting and thinking. A few meters away, a group of children are playing ball under a sign indicating the way to the exits.

Like many refugees in Greece today, they are trapped… not in a refuge but in a purgatory of faded hopes and shattered dreams.

Barbara Arvanitidis and Lewis Whyld contributed to this report.

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