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Uncertain Future for Refugees Stranded on Greek Islands

FILE - In this photo taken on Tuesday, July 14, 2016, two young girls walk among tents at Ritsona refugee camp north of Athens.
FILE - In this photo taken on Tuesday, July 14, 2016, two young girls walk among tents at Ritsona refugee camp north of Athens.

Nourhan Isso's timing was bad. The Syrian student who fled Aleppo crossed the Aegean from the Turkish coast to the nearby Greek island of Chios on March 20 with her mother, hoping they would quickly move on through Europe.

But unbeknown to them, the date marked a turning point in Europe's refugee crisis. Under an agreement between the European Union and Turkey, anyone arriving on the Greek islands from Turkey on or after March 20 would be held there and face being returned to Turkey unless they successfully apply for asylum in Greece.

Had they travelled a day earlier, their prospects might have been slightly brighter. They could have been among those sent to camps on the mainland, or perhaps one of the hundreds of thousands who managed to cross into central and northern Europe while Balkan borders were still open.

Instead, 21-year-old Isso found herself among more than 13,000 people stranded on the Greek islands, facing an uncertain future. About 3,300 are on Chios, where there is provision for just 1,100 spots. They must apply for admissibility to the asylum system in a procedure that can take months, and some refugees there said their second interviews were not scheduled until January 2017.

“We don't know our future or our life in the future,” said Isso, standing outside her tent in Souda camp, a collection of tents and prefabricated huts housing nearly 1,000 people in a moat outside the old city ramparts. “If you don't have hope you cannot live. It's death.”

Isso and her mother, Havin Had Hannad, have applied for admissibility. Isso's 23-year-old brother Ali had made it to Germany earlier and is living in Hamburg, but is sick. Hannad said she has been fast-tracked through the procedure because of her sick son and could travel to Athens and potentially even Germany, but she doesn't want to leave her daughter alone.

Isso herself is waiting to hear back on her application after her interview about two months ago.

“When we go to ask what happens for my case, they say: `you must wait, you must be patient.”'

It's the same for Afghan teacher Javid Raoufi, who also arrived on Chios on March 20.

“It is very bad luck for me,” said Raoufi, who has been teaching mathematics to refugee children in the camp. Had he arrived the previous day, he says, he could have left the island for Athens. “And I don't know, maybe from Athens we can go ... to another country.”

It is the uncertainty of the waiting that weighs most on many of the refugees, and the camps are rife with rumors.

“It's like jail here,” said Mohamoud Alou, a 29 year-old Syrian Kurd from Damascus who arrived on March 29 with his wife and daughter and has been living in Chios' Vial camp ever since. “Many people talk: maybe the boarder will open, maybe we will go, maybe we will stay here in Greece, maybe we will be returned to Turkey. But we don't know what happen to us.”

As a Kurd, the prospect of being returned to Turkey terrifies him. “If I return to Turkey, they'd say I am terrorist,” he said. A decades-long conflict between Turkish forces and Kurdish militants in southeastern Turkey has claimed thousands of lives. Hostilities resumed last year after a two-and-a-half year cease-fire.

Yet the fate of those migrants who arrived in Greece before March 20 is not all that different. Despite promises by European countries to take in refugees from Greece, only a fraction of promised relocations have taken place.

Balkan countries began restricting crossings of their borders in early 2016, and shut them completely in early March, stranding tens of thousands of people in Greece. The border closures also stranded others in various Balkan countries along the route.

To date, more than 60,000 refugees and migrants are stuck in Greece, housed in camps across the country as well as in apartments rented by charities or squats organized by volunteers.

Plans for a binding EU quota system to share the responsibility of hosting refugees fairly has met resistance from several countries, most notably Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Under an emergency relocation program, nearly 3,000 people have been transferred from Greece to other European countries instead of the 33,000 that should have been relocated by now, said Giorgos Kyritsis, spokesman for the government's crisis committee on migration.

“In other words a tenth of the figure that was foreseen and for which the European countries and the European Union have committed,” Kyritsis said.

“There are 7,000 people who are ready and waiting for their relocation, so it appears on this issue the other European countries and the entire EU that signed the agreement with Turkey have not fulfilled their obligations, whereas Greece has carried out all its obligations,” he added.

Ednan Varbori, an Iraqi Kurd, fled his home about eight months ago after it was attacked by Islamic State group fighters. He crossed into Turkey and from there to Chios. After 25 days, he was transferred to Ritsona camp on the mainland as authorities emptied the island camps to make way for those who would arrive from March 20 onward.

Services are basic in Ritsona, which consists mainly of tents. But authorities are gradually constructing more permanent wooden structures as winter approaches. And Varbori is grateful he is at least safe.

“Here we feel we live in peace because there is no terrorist here,” he said. “But life here is complicated.”

Varbori applied for asylum in Greece.

“If someone asks me why you don't want to go to Germany or France or another country, I say all Europe is the same, and if I be in Greece or another country, it's no different,” he said. “I want to work and have a good life.

But his application, like so many others, is dragging.

“I went to the interview and they were supposed to give me an answer but it has been delayed,” Varbori said.

Now all he can do is wait.

“Actually, I'm grateful to everybody who has helped us, and the whole world knows the conditions that we're living in.”