× Dismiss

Never Miss an Update.

Refugees Deeply is designed to help you understand the complex web of geopolitical, human rights, environmental, legal and other factors combining to make the refugee issue one of the most challenging of our lifetimes. Our editors and expert contributors are working around the clock to bring you greater clarity and comprehensive coverage.

Sign up to our newsletter to receive our weekly updates, special reports, and featured insights as we widen the lens on this critical – and quintessentially human – issue.

The Refugee Archipelago: The Inside Story of What Went Wrong in Greece

Refugees Deeply investigates failures in the most expensive humanitarian response in history, which played out during the refugee crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Written by Daniel Howden, Apostolis Fotiadis Published on Read time Approx. 28 minutes
Heroinvestigation
A tented refugee camp at the former Olympic site in Athens at Elliniko during freezing conditions in January 2017. Nikos Pilos

Widad Madrati remembers the first snowfall at Oreokastro like most children would, as a thing of wonder. It threw a brilliant white cover over the squalor of a refugee camp pitched in the grounds of a disused warehouse in the hills above Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki. The 17-year-old Syrian did not mind that the water pipe to the outdoor sinks had frozen. She took photographs of the icicles.

The photos on her phone show nothing of the broken chemical toilets or the discarded, inedible food; nor of the flimsy tents pitched on freezing ground by refugees, like her family, who arrived too late to find a spot inside the concrete shell of the old warehouse. Instead, her photos show children playing in the snow.

Stranded outside the Oreokastro buildings, in a tent dusted with snow, the other members of the Madrati family were more realistic about survival and begged the authorities and volunteers for a way out of the camp. A family of four when they left Aleppo who became five along the way when Widad’s sister Maria was born in Turkey, they had endured worse indignities in Greece than pleading.

The family was also among the last to leave their previous temporary home at Idomeni, where they held on for 10 weeks after the chaotic encampment on Greece’s northern border closed in March 2016, in the hope it would reopen. It did not.

The settlement was evacuated and its residents moved to former industrial sites like Oreokastro and disused army barracks. “I was crying when we left Idomeni,” says Widad. “I felt I was losing hope after so many people had crossed the border and we could not.”

She tells her story in the English she learned from volunteers at Idomeni and then taught to other refugee children at Oreokastro. Her family, who qualify by almost any criteria as refugees, has witnessed much of what has gone wrong in Greece since the country became the gateway to Europe for record numbers of refugees and migrants.

The Madratis’ route since arriving in the E.U. has been a tour of previously obscure places in Greece that have gained international notoriety for the misery of their conditions, from their arrival at Moria on Lesbos, to Idomeni and Oreokastro.

The Most Expensive Humanitarian Response

The Madrati family’s ordeal stands in stark contrast to the international funding and energy expended to help people like them.

A sequence of events beginning with the record refugee flows into Greece in June 2015 and culminating in the photograph of drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi woke the world to the refugee crisis. The effect of that awakening was to tip the entire humanitarian complex toward Greece, sending resources tumbling out of the developing world into the European Union. It prompted an unprecedented number of international volunteers to descend on the country, the U.N. refugee agency to declare an emergency inside the E.U., and the E.U. to deploy its own humanitarian response unit inside Europe for the first time. In the process, it became the most expensive humanitarian response in history, according to several aid experts, when measured by the cost per beneficiary.

Exactly how much money has been spent in Greece by the European Union is much reported but little understood. Refugees Deeply has calculated that $803 million has come into Greece since 2015, which includes all the funds actually allocated or spent, all significant bilateral funding and major sources of private donations.

The biggest pots of money are controlled by the European Commission, the E.U.’s executive body, which oversees the Asylum Migration Integration Fund (AMIF) and the Internal Security Fund (ISF) which collectively had $541 million dedicated to Greek funding needs. However, the government in Greece was unable to absorb significant amounts of these funds, necessitating emergency assistance from the commission, channeled through other means.

Confusion over the true extent of spending has been exacerbated by inflated statements from the European Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, Dimitris Avramopoulos, who has regularly cited figures in excess of 1 billion euros ($1.06 billion). This amount apparently refers to all available and theoretical funds, not what has actually been allocated or spent.

Nevertheless, the $803 million total represents the most expensive humanitarian response in history. On the basis that the money was spent on responding to all 1.03 million people who entered Greece since 2015, the cost per beneficiary would be $780 per refugee. However, the bulk of these funds addressed the needs of those stranded in Greece after the closure of the borders, and on this basis the cost per beneficiary is $14,088.

Read The Full Breakdown of What Money Went Where in Greece

Comparisons between humanitarian emergencies – which can range from wars to natural disasters – are not exact. The response to the Haiti earthquake in 2010 totaled $3.5 billion, according to the U.N.’s ReliefWeb, but the crisis affected more than 3 million people and the money was spent over a longer period.

Officials from the E.U.’s humanitarian operations directorate, ECHO, believe the cost per beneficiary was unprecedented from their operations. And yet, one senior aid official estimated that as much as “$70 out of every $100 spent” had been wasted.

Refugee Bonanza

The haunting image of Aylan Kurdi lying drowned on a Turkish beach on September 2, 2015, was shared more than 20 million times on social media. It prompted an immediate spike in Google searches related to Syria and an avalanche of private donations to charities working on refugee issues.

The Swedish Red Cross saw its daily donations leap 55-fold in the week after the image circulated, according to a study led by Paul Slovic at the University of Oregon. At the International Rescue Committee, a New York-based relief group, response to the photo drove a surge of public donations. A senior official at the group said the response crashed the website; although IRC staff later told Refugees Deeply this was not the case. Slovic says the toddler’s death “woke the world for a brief time”; it also made it imperative for international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) to show they were responding to events in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The body of Aylan Kurdi lies on the shores in Bodrum, southern Turkey, on September 2, 2015. (AFP/Nilufer Demir)

For the established groups already working in Greece, the sudden influx was both welcome and destabilizing. Metadrasi, a Greek organization known for training and providing everything from interpreters to vital services, saw experienced staff poached by bigger new entrants that could afford far higher salaries.

The head of Metadrasi, Lora Pappa, believes the large influx of money transformed refugees into “commodities” and encouraged short-term actions. “They [international organizations] were looking at how to show a presence in Greece. This led to some wasting the chance to spend constructively.”

Her rueful conclusion is that “sometimes money can do more harm than good.”

Among the cautionary tales to emerge from this period was the Apanemo transit center on Lesbos. A million-dollar facility built by the IRC on the steep hillside close to the main landing beaches during the busiest months in 2015, it was designed to receive 2,000 refugee arrivals per day. Funded by private donations, British aid money and the charitable Radcliffe Foundation, it was hailed by the IRC as the “much-needed reception center [that] provides crucial services to refugees.”

The IRC says it has been able to dismantle most of the materials and use them at other facilities, but the site of the center now stands unused while chaotic conditions elsewhere on the same island have resulted in refugee fatalities. But the rapid deployment of resources with questionable results was in no way confined to the IRC.

The decision by the U.N. refugee agency to classify the situation in Greece as an emergency on its response scale turned what had been a backwater posting into a major hub almost overnight. An office with a dozen staff who largely oversaw contract workers assisting the Greek asylum service became a leviathan. The UNHCR team in Greece expanded to 600 people across 12 offices. Roughly one-third of the workforce were international staff.

Most Greeks earn less than 800 euros per month while UNHCR national staff are on contracts equivalent to more than double this amount. International UNHCR staff earn three times more than their local counterparts. Fotini Rantsiou, a U.N. staff member who took a sabbatical from the organization to volunteer in her native Greece, says tensions between local and international staff complicated relations within the agency. She says local staff were sidelined and “treated like secretaries” by the newly arrived international staff.

The decision to take a role in the Greek crisis also put the UNHCR on a collision course with one of the core elements of its mandate: to advocate for the rights of refugees. Operating for the first time on this scale inside the E.U., which is also the organization’s second biggest funder globally, the UNHCR faced a dilemma over criticizing its donors. “Instead of advocating for the protection of refugees they remained silent for fear of the political consequences,” says Rantsiou. “Even if they wanted to criticize policy which violates principles they could not.”

The international organizations would work with a Greek administration that, at least in terms of its public statements, was among the most refugee-friendly in Europe.

However, many officials from the ruling Syriza party hold anti-imperialist convictions and were inclined to see the well-financed foreign organizations more as colonialists than humanitarians.

A senior Greek official says he detected “a colonial mentality” among INGO staff who continued to enjoy hardship pay while working in a more comfortable environment: “It was a good job to work in a country with fine restaurants and comfortable beds and be paid like you were in Somalia.” Several international aid officials told Refugees Deeply that Greek ministers began meetings by reminding them that they were “not in Somalia” and that Greece had its own government, laws and institutions.

The resentment was fueled by the fact that much of the funding on offer was directed to international aid agencies, not the government. This was ultimately destructive, according to diplomats, Greek officials and aid workers, since the government had the role of coordinator and had final sign-off on projects.

The tensions were also acknowledged by the NGO side. “Coordination of the response has been a key obstacle, with UNHCR failing to work productively with the government and the government failing to make urgent, strategic decisions quickly enough,” the U.K.-based charity Oxfam said in a statement.

‘We’re at War!’

Mass migration is not something new to Greece. An influx of migrants from the Balkans and farther east arrived from the 1990s onward and were largely left to fend for themselves. The most the issue merited was its own section at the ministry of the interior. But migration officials had access to one of the largest money pots overseen by the European Commission, the aforementioned AMIF and ISF funds.

Relatively complicated to tap, these funds are arranged in seven-year programs on “migration and border management” commencing in 2014 that required the Greeks to set up a managing authority and develop a strategic plan. When Syriza took office it found little of this groundwork had been done by the previous conservative administration. The leftists, intent on confronting Berlin and Brussels over the debt crisis, showed equally little interest in taking the first steps to tap these funds. European Commission officials working on AMIF and ISF complained they could find no one to talk to in Athens, despite the half-billion euros potentially on offer.

It took the historic wave of refugees and migrant arrivals that crashed over the Greek islands in June 2015 to force a rethink. Some early steps were taken to establish a managing authority and submit a plan. But a cabinet reshuffle and fresh elections saw these efforts put on hold.

A Timeline of the Crisis

The reshuffle brought Ioannis Mouzalas into the role of alternate minister. An obstetrician with lengthy service at the medical charity Doctors of the World, he appeared a strong choice for a role that was increasingly competing for attention with the financial crisis.

Those hoping for a calm manager were to be disappointed, though. Officials present at the time recall the gray-haired doctor showing little patience for the technical details of his new brief, and a tendency to duck operational questions as he paced the office declaring, “We’re at war!”

A ministry official involved in setting up the managing authority to tap European funds told the new boss the technical work was important. It was explained to Mouzalas that the ministry needed to devote “a significant portion of our time to the managing authority” in order to get “a system that works.”

The advice was ignored, ministry officials said.

As the autumn of 2015 approached, Greece remained a refugee corridor, with the majority of new arrivals spending less than a week from arriving on the islands to exiting over the northern border along the West Balkans route. The theory of how Europe’s borders were meant to work was disconnected from the reality. Under the rules of its borderless club, the Schengen Zone, people arriving in the E.U. must apply for asylum in the country of their entry. Theoretically the entry state is responsible for ensuring compliance with asylum law and should prevent their departure.

As hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants transited Greece, it became obvious it had neither a mechanism nor the capacity to compel new arrivals to apply for asylum.

Greece came under considerable pressure from the E.U. to set up “hot spots” on the eastern Aegean islands of Lesbos, Kos, Leros, Chios and Samos to identify and fingerprint all new arrivals. In October, Greece’s prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, promised the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, the hot spots would be operational within a month.

In late October 2015, regional leaders converged on Brussels for the West Balkans Route meeting in an atmosphere described by one diplomat present as “scarcely concealed panic.”

It was already clear to the gathered leaders that any future plans to stem migrant flows into Europe would be contingent on Greece being able to process new arrivals, identify those in need of protection, and deport those deemed not to qualify. It was also clear to everyone that Greece was nowhere close to being able to do so.

“Either you massively help [Greece] now or you’ll face a huge number of migrants entering the E.U.,” a senior U.N. official told the European Commission (E.C.). On the sidelines of the meeting, Frans Timmermans, a vice president of the E.C., admitted to the U.N. refugee agency it had “no idea” how to deal with the situation.

The approach that emerged combined threats over Greece’s place in the Schengen Zone with emergency funds to build and run new facilities. By the end of the meeting Greece had agreed to accommodate a total of 50,000 refugees, with the UNHCR tasked with finding places for 20,000 of these in hotels or apartments and the remainder to be housed in camps under Greek authority.

By mid-November it was already clear that diplomatic agreements were not changing the situation on the ground. An E.C. team that conducted spot checks in Evros in northern Greece and on the islands of Chios and Samos reported that “nothing seems to be prepared or planned … The whole system seems to be organized to register migrants and let them leave.”

A Greek policeman serving at the Moria camp put it more succinctly when explaining that his job was to get a copy of an I.D. and a fingerprint and then speed them on their way to Germany: “Copy, finger, Merkel.”

Corridor Becomes a Warehouse

A Friday ritual was established in Athens where representatives of the Greek army, police and several ministries would meet with a team from the European Commission and the U.N. to update them on nonexistent progress. But on the second Friday of February 2016, the comfortable routine was disturbed by Maarten Verwey, the E.C.’s lead in Greece, who broke the news that the border was closing: “Guys, we gave you time,” he told the meeting, according to someone present. “You didn’t prepare. Good luck. Now it’s going to happen.”

With his borders set to close, no hot spots and a grilling in prospect at a European leaders’ summit at the end of February, the Greek prime minister, Tsipras, found an unlikely savior. Panos Kammenos has been one of the indisputable political winners from the upheaval of Greek politics and the collapse of its traditional parties. A thickset right-winger with a penchant for military uniforms who blames Greece’s debt crisis on a shadowy global banking conspiracy, he found himself as the junior partner in a coalition government. His price for propping up a hard-left government was the defense ministry.

Prior to February, Kammenos’ contribution to the refugee response had been to growl that Europe should back down in debt negotiations or Greece would flood the E.U. with migrants. His change of heart came after $74 million was added to the defense ministry budget for refugee support, recurring annually. In a period of less than 10 days the Greek army established spartan but functional facilities at the hot spots.

Greece’s migration minister Ioannis Mouzalas is mobbed by furious refugees outside the Elliniko camp in Athens. (Nikos Pilos)

Greece’s migration minister Ioannis Mouzalas is mobbed by furious refugees outside the Elliniko camp in Athens. (Nikos Pilos)

The pattern was set for inertia, concealment of chaos, external pressure and last-minute actions. With responsibility for the response now divided between several Greek ministries and a U.N. agency more accustomed to working in the developing world, E.C. cash flowed and effective oversight of refugee spending was removed. A series of amendments that passed through Greece’s parliament stripped out auditing requirements on contracts related to the refugee crisis.

Parallel System

On March 9, 2016, the migrant trail was severed, with the closure of the border with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Nine days later a deal was unveiled between the E.U. and Turkey under which Greece would return newly arrived refugees and migrants and Turkey would stem the flow of people in return for aid money and political concessions. While this was received publicly as a shock, the government in Athens had known for months what was coming.

It is a popular lament in Greece that the country has good laws but terrible governance. Another good law, law 4375/2016, was added to the statute books in April. It took the ad hoc jumble of different services across different ministries and created a ministry of migration. However, those charged with implementing the law failed to make this happen.

Odysseas Voudouris was appointed by the prime minister to head a new general secretariat under Mouzalas that would do much of the ground work, from running hot spots to appointing camp directors. The two men had much in common: Both were doctors and veterans of medical charities – in Voudouris’ case, Medecins sans Frontieres.

When Mouzalas asked the new official to wait and see how he operated before taking any initiatives, Voudouris initially demurred. When six weeks later he was still watching from the sidelines, he wrote to Mouzalas to tell him the situation could not continue.

The pair ceased speaking to each other, according to ministry officials, switching to letters. Voudouris claimed that instead of a professional bureaucracy with transparent roles, Mouzalas operated a “parallel system” made up of relatives and family friends. This alleged system included his niece, Katerina Mamoli, appointed to run his office; a university friend of hers, Christina Christidou; and a college friend of Mouzalas’ brother, Iosif Alexandridis, according to multiple sources.

“They had no professional or managerial experience,” says Voudouris. “It wasn’t just that they had no official authority, they were incompetent.”

Mouzalas was asked by Refugees Deeply about his relationship to certain key staff members and their qualifications but he declined to comment for this article.

Things came to a head when Voudouris arranged, with the help of the UNHCR and using $1.8 million in European money, to recruit 118 contract workers to begin staffing his secretariat. In an exchange of letters, seen by Refugees Deeply, the move was blocked by Mouzalas even after a senior U.N. official intervened to explain the hires would be paid for by funds that would be lost if left untapped. Mouzalas was also asked to explain his intervention over the contract workers but he again declined to comment for this article.

Nikos Xydakis, who worked closely with Mouzalas throughout this period as an alternate foreign minister, became increasingly concerned with how the crisis was being handled. “It was managerial negligence. This could have been addressed and we could have had a much better situation … Greece can innovate solutions. Now there is no time left for managerial negligence and short-termism.”

Speaking to state television in November 2016, Mouzalas deflected responsibility from his ministry: “It wasn’t our choice for the money to go to NGOs … this was Europe’s decision. We are not the ones in control of this money. It is controlled by the relevant European authorities; this is the law.”

Refugee Archipelago

Imam Ali, a 68-year-old Palestinian refugee from Syria, leads prayers in the tented mosque at the Softex refugee camp outside Thessaloniki. (Nikos Pilos)

Imam Ali, a 68-year-old Palestinian refugee from Syria, leads prayers in the tented mosque at the Softex refugee camp outside Thessaloniki. (Nikos Pilos)

When Imam Ali arrived at Softex, a ruined toilet paper factory downwind of an oil refinery outside Thessaloniki in April, he slept rough outside the derelict main building. Nine months later, and still awaiting news on whether he could reunite with his wife in the Netherlands, the 68-year-old Palestinian who had lived in Syria was finally moved to a weatherproof container.

The retired engineer picked up the honorary title of imam after leading prayers in a tent that residents use as a mosque. He also led a number of protests over conditions at the camp. When he was eventually granted an audience with U.N. officials the main thing he wanted to know was: “Who is the leader here at this camp? The police? The army? The U.N.? Who do we talk to?”

The imam’s experience of harsh conditions, helplessness and not knowing who to talk to was common to countless refugees. Forced to warehouse people who were determined to leave, the Greek government pursued an unlikely strategy. An archipelago of camps was spread across the country from a barren hillside above Greece’s biggest oil refinery, to the remote Zagorohoria villages in Epirus and a clutch of polluted and unsafe former industrial sites around Thessaloniki. Heavy metal contamination of the water, exposed asbestos paneling and the presence of Anopheles mosquitos would prompt the Greek Center for Disease Control and Prevention to recommend their closure in July.

The archipelago strategy, while commended for avoiding refugee ghettos, placed an administrative and cost burden that the misfiring alliance of the Greek government and international organizations could not sustain. It also revealed the shocking absence of a functioning chain of command.

Ask exactly how many refugee camps there are in Greece and no one is certain. Migration ministry bulletins list 39 camps, some of which are empty; others are mothballed and others still are in the planning phase but do not appear on the list. The UNHCR said there were more than 50, but did not give a specific number.

When the border was closed and the West Balkan route was blocked, as many as 11,000 refugees piled up in Idomeni. Behind the scenes a scramble for potential sites has been going on for months directed by Mouzalas and his close circle of advisers, including Alexandridis. Among the most problematic choices they made were a string of privately owned warehouses including Oreokastro, where the Madrati family found themselves, the Karamanlis tannery outside Thessaloniki, and Softex.

These sites, chosen in preference to public ones, also lacked all basic utilities. They were not served by sewerage, electricity or water systems sufficient for large populations. Transport connections – essential for refugees, who need to access health and asylum services – were largely nonexistent. At Softex the public bus company operates no services because the area has been a hub for drug dealing and is considered dangerous.

The insistence on these sites further complicated the role of the UNHCR and ECHO, which are not allowed to develop private property. When U.N. officials objected they were promised in private by Mouzalas that the sites would close after a two-month stopgap. Mouzalas declined to comment on the reported promises. Several of the sites continue to operate to this day.

“It’s inexplicable that they were not able to find publicly owned sites,” says the country director of one of the large international NGOs operating in Greece. “To have so many sites on private land is madness, and they’re paying rent for unacceptable conditions.”

Prayer mats under the old Duty Free signs at the former Athens airport, now a refugee camp. (Nikos Pilos)

Prayer mats under the old Duty Free signs at the former Athens airport, now a refugee camp. (Nikos Pilos)

In July 2016 Mouzalas’ lieutenant at the ministry, Voudouris, completed an assessment of the sites that recommended the closure of a string of camps, including the warehouses. It would have reduced their total number from 39 to 24. The findings of the report were backed by technical staff at ECHO and the UNHCR.

However, the 24-camp plan was rejected by Mouzalas, who indicated to officials that more camps were planned, not fewer. Voudouris resigned a little over a month later. Repeated requests from European and U.N. officials for a master plan detailing which sites would be developed and which ones would be prioritized were answered by the Greek ministry with the same list of 39 sites.

“For planning purposes, it would have been of high value to have a final list of the different categories by the end of the summer, indicating which sites would be for long term, which ones closed before winter and which ones prepared for winter,” says UNHCR’s top-ranking official in Greece, Giovanni Lepri.

The migration ministry was asked for this article to share details of any master plan for the development of camps and the use of resources but declined to comment.

Meanwhile, volunteers, aid workers, diplomats and the refugees themselves were bewildered by the failure to appoint camp directors. By Greek law the camp heads should have come under Voudouris’ general secretariat, which the minister had sidelined and refused to staff.

In its place was an ad hoc system in which some facilities got camp directors appointed by the ministry, while others were run by army officials or NGOs. In some cases army officers appointed to set up the camps stayed on after the ministry failed to appoint replacements. In the ensuing free-for-all, some camps in the north had “more aid workers than refugees,” according to a European diplomat who monitored their running. At Diavata, one of the earliest camps at a former army barracks in northern Greece, 40 NGOs were active. In other camps, the diplomat discovered “they were giving yoga lessons but there was no electricity.”

The lethal consequences of this lack of leadership would become apparent with the onset of winter at Moria, the hot spot on Lesbos.

Winter Is Coming

An asylum seeker from Pakistan feeds a stray dog at the snow-covered refugee camp of Vagiohori village, outside Thessaloniki Jan. 12, 2017. (AP/Giannis Papanikos)

An asylum seeker from Pakistan feeds a stray dog at the snow-covered refugee camp of Vagiohori village, outside Thessaloniki Jan. 12, 2017. (AP/Giannis Papanikos)

One of the few kindnesses that asylum seekers did receive on arriving in Greece late in 2015 was the unusually mild weather. It is a myth that Greece has no winter, and temperatures in the north can be harsh from December through February.

By late spring 2016 the larger international aid agencies were already tabling plans to winterize the tented camps and donors were allocating funds. The Arbeiter-Samariter-Bund, a German NGO, put forward a $1.6 million proposal to turn Softex into a 1,500-person site with accommodation in containers with heating and plumbing. Bilateral aid money from Germany was agreed to fund the winterized camp and the proposal went to the Greek migration ministry.

Instead of signing off and allowing work to begin, the Greeks returned with their own proposal costed at $8 million. When donors and aid agencies replied that this was a nonstarter, Mouzalas refused to budge or negotiate a compromise. In a letter dated July 7, the ministry wrote to ASB “that for Softex camp our plans will not change” and therefore their proposal was rejected.

The fallout from the Softex standoff made it to the Greek parliament later that month: 10 MPs demanded to know how the ASB proposal had been evaluated and why it had been rejected. According to parliamentary records, the same question also raised the issue of the informal chain of command established to administer the camps.

Aid agencies’ proposals being answered with far more expensive counter-proposals occurred at other sites. In at least two other instances, ECHO officials refused to sanction camp plans put forward by the ministry. A standoff ensued.

Meanwhile, senior officials at the U.N. refugee agency came to feel they were being used as a “humanitarian takeaway” with late-night calls being received from the government asking for a menu of equipment and material that was handed over by UNHCR with no clear idea of where it would be deployed and by whom.

Adding to the uncertainty was a murky game over the number of refugees within Greek borders. After the closure of the northern frontier and the implementation of the Greece-Turkey deal, arrivals slowed dramatically. When the first official count of asylum seekers remaining in Greece was released by the migration ministry it stated that there were 57,000 on the mainland and the islands.

This number grew with the trickle of new arrivals on the islands to 63,000 on the official bulletin from the migration ministry. But the numbers ran counter to what European officials and NGO staff were seeing in the camps where more and more people were disappearing. At the end of July a new column appeared on the ministry report listing “refugees outside camps.” As the numbers reported in individual camps reduced, the number in the new column rose.

Spot-checks at camps near Thessaloniki carried out by a foreign diplomat found huge discrepancies between the official numbers and those actually present. At Oreokastro, where the official headcount was 604, there were only 135 people present. The caterers at the camp, who receive a budget of $6 per person per day – as they do at camps across the country – were well aware of the discrepancy and told the diplomat they were delivering 200 meals while continuing to receive funding based on the official figures.

When the Wall Street Journal reported in December that thousands of refugees counted in the official numbers were “missing,” the ministry responded that the claim was “baseless.” It was not until February that the UNHCR finally admitted that it had counted 13,000 fewer refugees than the Greek government.

While it is under pressure to show it has its borders under control, Greece can scarcely admit that thousands of refugees have nonetheless been smuggled into the Balkans. The migration ministry maintains there are more than 62,000 refugees in Greece.

In parallel to the numbers confusion, as winter approached some U.N. officials spoke privately of having nightmares featuring refugee children standing in the snow in front of tents emblazoned with UNHCR logos. When wrangles over exact container sizes with the Greek government spilled over into October the UNHCR took the unilateral step of informing the ministry it was prioritizing 15 sites and would begin supplying them with standard-sized containers.

“Every time the government would take it right to the edge of the cliff before agreeing to anything,” says a European official familiar with the negotiations. “With the winterization they went right over the edge.”

A race against the weather began that ended in November with the first snows in the foothills of Mt. Olympus at Petra Olympou, a camp for Yazidis who had fled the ISIS onslaught in Iraq. While photos were published of snowbound UNHCR tents, the refugees themselves had been moved hours beforehand, relocated to rented rooms in the spa town of Volvi.

On January 5 Mouzalas tempted fate by declaring the winterization complete during a visit to select camps in the north. “There are no longer any refugees or migrants in the cold,” he told reporters, adding that there was no one left in tents except for 40 people in Vagiohori, near Thessaloniki, and 100 in Athens.

The statements rebounded on the minister within days as a fresh cold snap was accompanied by new photographs of refugees in appalling conditions, this time on the islands. Mouzalas responded combatively to a fresh round of questioning saying his previous comments referred to the mainland only and that the tents may not be “four-star accommodation” but they were adequate.

Before the end of the month three asylum seekers in Moria camp on Lesbos died. Footage from the camp made it plain that some refugees and migrants were still in flimsy tents with no protection from freezing temperatures. Local witnesses suggested the three young men died after inhaling fumes from the plastic they had scavenged and burned in a vain attempt to keep warm. Greek authorities have not yet confirmed the cause of their deaths.

Syrian refugees in the deep snow at a ski chalet in the Greek mountains above Grevena. (Nikos Pilos)

Syrian refugees in the deep snow at a ski chalet in the Greek mountains above Grevena. (Nikos Pilos)

While Greek and international attention focused on the remaining people in tents in the snow, a costly and desperate face-saving exercise was underway in northern Greece: transferring hundreds of refugees and migrants into seafront hotels and luxury ski chalets in the mountains above Grevena, a three-hour drive outside the city. Entire budgets meant for the development of semipermanent camp facilities were spent on hotel bills. Aid officials confirm that temporary arrangements with hotel owners are due to expire in March.

One bewildered Syrian, moved from the squalid camp of Oreokastro, where tents were pitched in and around the concrete shell of a disused factory, found himself transported into the middle of a weeklong whiteout at the Vasilitsa spa resort, a hotel with tennis courts and fireplaces next to a popular ski center.

“We’ve been upgraded to this place,” he wrote on Facebook. “It’s like a refrigerator.”

Chaos as a Deterrence

Katerina Poutou has become an accomplished letter writer. A veteran of Greece’s suddenly crowded humanitarian field, she is the head of Arsis, one of its largest NGOs. She has waged a battle by correspondence since July 2016 with a succession of Greek ministers in a forlorn effort to secure the basic needs of 600 of the most vulnerable refugees in Greece, including unaccompanied minors and lone mothers with children.

The 600 are housed in shelters run by Arsis and seven other groups that clearly qualify for AMIF funds from the European Commission that should be channeled through the Greek government. She has been forced to repeatedly beseech ministries who have been unwilling or unable to work the bureaucratic levers to ensure the necessary funds arrive.

The passage of the April 2016 law establishing a ministry of migration foresaw the new ministry taking over shelter needs for extremely vulnerable groups. Yet the failure of the ministries of migration and development to establish an effective managing authority and tap the European funds created a financing cliff and left those taking care of vulnerable refugees teetering on the edge.

Letters in July and August saw the UNHCR and IOM step in to pay the bills until the end of the year. Since November Poutou’s pen has been aimed at Mouzalas and Alexis Haritsis, the minister of development, begging for information as to what would happen at the end of the year. There was no reply. The day before New Year’s Eve UNHCR and IOM offered a one-month extension. When that expired she began to copy her by-now-outraged letters to the prime minister’s office. Still no reply and another short-term sticking plaster of foreign funds was found.

“I am not sure officials understand the consequences of the situation they have created or the humiliation this bears for the country,” says Poutou. “I have no idea why they don’t make the managing authority function. Any minister who understands the responsibilities of his mandate could have managed this if he was interested.”

The situation exploded in February when Greek asylum service workers on the islands went on strike. An asylum service email on January 25 had informed the workers that “timely payments of wages was postponed indefinitely.” Since the beginning of the year, the responsibility for paying them had been shifted by law to the migration ministry, but the bureaucracy did not exist to handle it. Seven months after law 4375 passed there was still no clear structure for what it should look like.

Some 40 MPs from the minister’s own party have threatened to raise the matter in parliament but for now the minister continues to enjoy the support of the prime minister. His supporters also extend far beyond Athens.

The second line in almost all the minister’s public statements is one of unequivocal support for the E.U.-Turkey deal. This staunch backing for the European Commission’s overriding priority of slowing migration flows has so far shielded Mouzalas and other government figures from any serious criticism.

“Mouzalas is their man and they know he will support their stance as though it is carved in marble,” says Voudouris. “He is an incompetent but he is their incompetent.”

Some critics see an even more cynical quid pro quo. The bigger the mess in Greece, the harsher the conditions, the greater the deterrent for other refugees and migrants who see the country as a route into the E.U., they argue. The lavish European funding – which has been systematically overstated by the migration commissioner – offers plausible deniability of responsibility for conditions in Greece without relieving the very real problems on the ground. A spokesperson for the commission denied that there was a deterrence strategy, insisting that it was “committed to improving conditions in Greece.”

As a Greek living and working in Paris, Dimitris Christopoulos, who heads the International Federation of Human Rights, one of the world’s oldest rights groups, has seen both sides of the issue up close. He believes the Greek government has used the mess to shield itself from the possible mass return of failed asylum seekers from elsewhere in the E.U. The E.C. and a number of member states are keen to resume the so-called Dublin Regulation from March onward. Christopoulos is also clear that far from weakening Mouzalas’ position with Brussels, the suffering and waste in Greece won him the “absolute support of the commission.”

“The Greek administrative chaos is the best deterrence” to others hoping to reach Europe, says Christopoulos. “It sends the message that Greece is a mess so don’t come this way.”

This story has been updated to clarify that most materials at Apanemo were dismantled and include IRC staff’s response on the website crash after the Aylan Kurdi photo.

Never miss an update. Sign up here for our Refugees Deeply newsletter to receive weekly updates, special reports and featured insights on one of the most critical issues of our time.

Become a Contributor.

Have a story idea? Interested in adding your voice to our growing community?

Learn more