Greek authorities on Thursday began bussing hundreds of migrants and refugees to accommodation in other parts of Greece from a port near Athens, where they spent weeks sleeping in the open and tensions flared over phone chargers and food.
At least 51,000 refugees and migrants who reached Greece from Turkey and are hoping to travel north to countries like Germany and Austria are stranded in Greece after Balkan countries closed their borders.
Nearly 6,000 people, most from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, were stuck at the port of Piraeus on Thursday, authorities said. Greece’s largest port lies about 12 km from central Athens.
By mid-morning, at least four buses departed for the port town of Kyllini in western Greece, some 280 km from Athens, where they will be housed in a former tourist complex. Families began gathering at the dock as more buses were expected to be deployed.
Other buses left for the cities of Ioannina and Larissa in northwestern and central Greece.
Under a European Union deal with Turkey, those who arrived in Greece from Turkey after March 20 will be held in camps and subject to being sent back to Turkey once their asylum claims have been processed.
Since arriving at Piraeus after landing by boat on Greek islands off the Turkish coast, most migrants and refugees there have been reluctant to move fearing they would be too far from the closed Greek-Macedonian border in case it reopened.
“I believe the first group to go to Kyllini will relay the message to the rest that it’s a decent place, and we won’t have a problem moving (more) people there,” George Kyritsis, a government spokesman, told Greek TV.
Scuffles have broken out at the port in recent weeks, where people live in tents and on blankets in the open, with poor sanitation and little food.
Windows were smashed and eight people were injured in clashes between groups of Syrians and Afghans on Wednesday night, the government said.
For every Syrian sent back to Turkey from Greece, one Syrian will be resettled directly to Europe from Turkey. The returns are set to begin on April 4, but neither side is fully ready, with officials scrambling to be able to make at least a symbolic start as new arrivals rise.
The government submitted a bill in parliament on Wednesday night to facilitate the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal and which incorporates EU law on asylum seekers. The bill is expected to be voted on in parliament on Friday night.