As 2016 begins, migrant flow into Europe looks set to continue

ATHENS, Greece— Bitter cold, biting winds and rough winter seas have done little to stem the seemingly endless flow of desperate people fleeing war or poverty for what they hope will be a brighter, safer future in Europe.

See Full Article

As 2016 dawns, boatloads continue to reach Greek shores and thousands trudge across Balkan fields and country roads heading north.

More than a million people reached Europe in 2015 in the continent's largest refugee influx since the end of the Second World War — a crisis that has tested European unity and threatened the vision of a borderless continent. Nearly 3,800 people are estimated to have drowned in the Mediterranean last year, making the journey to Greece or Italy in unseaworthy vessels packed far beyond capacity.

The European Union has pledged to bolster patrols on its external borders and quickly deport economic migrants, while Turkey has agreed to crack down on smugglers operating from its coastline. But those on the front lines of the crisis say the coming year promises to be difficult unless there is a dramatic change.

Greece has borne the brunt of the exodus, with more than 850,000 people reaching the country's shores, nearly all arriving on Greek islands from the nearby Turkish coast.

"The (migrant) flows continue unabated. And on good days, on days when the weather isn't bad, they are increased," Ioannis Mouzalas, Greece's minister responsible for migration issues, told The Associated Press. "This is a problem and shows that Turkey wasn't able - I'm not saying that they didn't want - to respond to the duty and obligation it had undertaken to control the flows and the smugglers from its shores."

Europe's response to the crisis has been fractured, with individual countries, concerned about the sheer scale of the influx, introducing new border controls aimed at limiting the flow. The problem is compounded by the reluctance of many migrants' countries of origin, such as Pakistan, to accept forcible returns.

"If measures are not taken to stop the flows from Turkey and if Europe doesn't solve the problems of the returns as a whole, it will be a very difficult year," Mouzalas warned.

Along the Balkan migrant route, an undetermined number of men, women and children considered economic migrants have found themselves stranded, their hopes of reaching prosperous northern EU countries dashed by recent border closures. Greece, with thousands of miles of coastline, is the only country that cannot feasibly block people from entering without breaking international laws about rescuing those in distress at sea.

"It's a bad sign, this unabated flow that continues," Mouzalas said. "It creates difficulties for us, as the borders have closed for particular categories of people and there is a danger they will be trapped here."

The number of those estimated to be stuck in Greece runs in the thousands. Mohammed Abusaid is one of them.

A baby-faced 27-year-old Moroccan electrician, Abusaid left home with dreams of finding work in Germany or even the United States.

Like tens of thousands before him, he made his way with a group of friends to Turkey and then braved the short but perilous sea crossing to the Greek island of Lesbos in early November.

From there, they headed north only to discover the Macedonian border was only open to those from war-wracked Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq. The young Moroccans now spend their nights huddling for warmth in a tent beneath a straggly tree outside Athens' old airport.

"I'm living here like a tramp. But I'm not a tramp," Abusaid said quietly. "I'm single, my parents are old. I want to look for work. We don't cause trouble, we just want to work."

But Abusaid finds himself trapped in a country wracked by a five-year financial crisis that has left unemployment hovering around 25 per cent. Desperate, cold and hungry, two of his friends have opted for the voluntary repatriation scheme offered by the International Organization for Migration and are heading home in early January. Abusaid says he's pondering following suit.

But he still hopes to make it to northern Europe for a better life, and dreams of America. "I wish I could fly like a bird and go there."

Inside the old airport complex, a shelter has been set up in a former Olympic Games hockey venue but access is limited to vulnerable groups, particularly after theft, looting and fights were reported amongst groups of men.

"We realize it is very difficult for the new government to handle all these elevated numbers," said Chrysanthi Protogerou, director of the Greek Council for Refugees aid organization. "We were not well prepared and we continue not being well prepared. . What we would like to propose is to have better coordination, to make an even bigger effort, because the problem is becoming huge."

Battered on the one side by a massive wave of desperate people risking their lives to reach its islands and on the other by border restrictions, Greece is struggling.

"It's a situation to which we are being subjected without bearing any responsibility for it and without being able to control it," said Mouzalas. "Whatever measures we take here, if on the Turkish side the smugglers increase the flows, we can't cope. . We have a vast sea and countless islands. If a ground intervention occurs in Syria, we can't deal with this wave of refugees."

The problem, the beleaguered minister said, "is happening in Greece but it is a European problem and the solution must be a European one."

Nearly all new arrivals are aiming for wealthy northern European countries, with Germany and Sweden the favorites. Both stood out for trying to maintain a generous welcome even as numbers swelled, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel famously proclaiming "we will manage it."

Germany received about 1 million asylum-seekers this year and Sweden more than 150,000.

However, towards the end of the year even those two shifted course. Germany introduced border checks in September and Sweden in November. Sweden is now taking steps to keep people from even reaching the border and as of Monday will require passengers boarding Sweden-bound trains in neighboring Denmark to show ID. The crisis has strained relations between the Scandinavian neighbors.

Further down the migrant trail, refugees trickle steadily into Macedonia and Serbia, although authorities say numbers have decreased "drastically."

In a Serbian refugee center in Presevo near the Macedonian border, a baby wearing a yellow cap and oversized gloves blinked in the winter sun while a woman slowly combed a girl's long, black hair.

Although trains and buses are still crowded, Macedonia's border controls seem to be working.

"The number of migrants going through has drastically declined," said Presevo camp deputy manager Slobodan Savovic. "That means the numbers have more than halved when compared to September, when we had as much as 10,000 people per day."


Karl Ritter in Stockholm, Sweden, Marko Drobnjakovic in Presevo, Serbia and Raphael Kominis in Athens contributed.


Latest Canada & World News

  • Five men arrested after Vegas-bound plane diverts to Winnipeg

    Canada News CTV News
    WINNIPEG -- Five men were removed from a plane that was forced to divert to Winnipeg on its way from the United Kingdom to Las Vegas. A spokesman with Thomas Cook Airlines says the Airbus A330 was travelling from Manchester to Las Vegas on Saturday morning when the crew diverted to Winnipeg due to some passengers' "disruptive behaviour. Source
  • Family found dead at Mexico resort killed by toxic gas

    World News CTV News
    MEXICO CITY -- Autopsies indicate an Iowa couple and their two children died from inhaling toxic gas at a rented condo on Mexico's Caribbean coast, but there was no sign of foul play or suicide, Mexican authorities said Saturday. Source
  • 'A historic moment': Montreal massacre survivor joins Washington rally

    Canada News CTV News
    It’s been more than 28 years since a gunman stormed Montreal’s École Polytechnique, killing 14 women in the deadliest mass shooting in Canadian history. Another 14 people were injured in the massacre, including Nathalie Provost, who sustained four gunshot wounds, including one to the forehead. Source
  • 'I will vote you out': Teens vow to shake up U.S. politics at gun control rallies

    World News CTV News
    WASHINGTON -- Kat Schamel did not vote in the last American election, because her 18th birthday happened to fall on Nov. 9, 2016, one day after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. Source
  • Car bomb in coastal Egyptian city kills 2 police

    World News CTV News
    CAIRO -- A bomb placed under a nearby car exploded Saturday in the coastal city of Alexandria as the city security chief's convoy passed by, killing two policemen and wounding four others, the Interior Ministry said. Source
  • Accused Austin bomber called himself a 'psychopath': congressman

    World News CTV News
    AUSTIN, Texas - A congressman says the suspected Austin bomber left a confession calling himself a "psychopath" and saying he felt no remorse for his actions. Rep. Michael McCaul made the comments at a news conference Saturday, where he thanked law enforcement officials for stopping the deadly three-week bombing spree that terrorized the capital of Texas. Source
  • The road map and road blocks of Trump's transgender troops ban explained

    World News CBC News
    U.S. President Donald Trump has issued an order supporting his push to ban most transgender troops from serving in the U.S. military except under "limited circumstances." But the decision is expected to be the subject of an ongoing legal fight in the months ahead. Source
  • Nigerian police: Boko Haram to free 1 more kidnapped girl

    World News CTV News
    MAIDUGURI, Nigeria -- Nigeria's police chief says another girl who was abducted from a school in Dapchi last month is being brought back by her kidnappers. Police Inspector General Muhammed Abubakar said Saturday that he cancelled a trip to Dapchi to avoid interfering with the release. Source
  • Quebec doctors protest their own raises, call for improved patient accessibility

    Canada News CBC News
    When Lashanda Skerritt decided to go to medical school, money was far from being the first thing on her mind — she wanted to serve the population. She is among hundreds of health care workers, patients and community groups who marched in protest of raises for doctors in the province. Source
  • New Brunswick man reaches halfway point of 3,000-kilometre dog sled trek

    Canada News CTV News
    A New Brunswick man making a 3,000-kilometre dog sled trek from Manitoba to his home province says the journey thus far has been "a mix of beauty and terror." Justin Allen and his 12 Alaskan huskies left Churchill, Man. Source