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Thousands Of Migrants Headed To Western Europe Stranded In Greece


Thousands of migrants from Africa, South Asia and Iran are now marooned in the Greek capital, Athens. The neighboring Balkan nation of Macedonia, like several other European countries, is starting to limit the number of migrants they will let in. They say only refugees from wars are welcome, not economic migrants. Joanna Kakissis has this report from Athens.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Doda and Abdul Hamid Baluch are 18-year-old cousins from Pakistan. Bundled in electric-blue parkas, they watch young Greek men play soccer. Doda says they're from Baluchistan, a restive province where he says young men are often killed by the army.

DODA BALUCH: Now we can't go to Pakistan again. If we go, they'll kill us.

ABDUL HAMID BALUCH: They'll kill us.

D. BALUCH: We will die here, but we can't go back.

KAKISSIS: The cousins landed on a Greek island a month ago. They want to go to Germany, where nearly a million migrants have claimed asylum this year. But Macedonia blocked them.

D. BALUCH: We are thinking, what should we do now? But we don't know what will happen today or tomorrow.

KAKISSIS: Macedonian authorities claim they were overwhelmed by the thousands of migrants crossing the country's borders every day. Last month, they decided to only let Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis pass through. Macedonia treats everyone else as economic migrants. They are now stuck in Greece. The Greek government has been forced to convert sports arenas into temporary migrant camps.

Inside one of the arenas, the toilets are backed up so water pools in the hallways. Men urinate into plastic bottles. There are heaps of trash. A security alarms rings and rings. It has not stopped since Mohammad Reza arrived with his wife and three young children three days ago. They're from Iran.

MOHAMMAD REZA: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Reza admits he's an economic migrant. He's also trying to reach Germany. He wants a better life for his kids, including his shy 3-year-old daughter, Aysan.

AYSAN: (Coughing).

KAKISSIS: Aysan caught a bad cold while her family camped outside for more than two weeks at the Greek-Macedonian border. She sleeps on a blanket on the floor. Fights often break out here. There's no security, even in areas with children.

MARJAN DASTANI: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: A young Iranian mother who gives her name as Marjan Dastani says a group of young men, Moroccan migrants, attacked families with fire extinguishers and tried to take her tent. Another Moroccan, a dad named Mohammad Hajji, intervened. He says the men wanted to fight her.

MOHAMMAD HAJJI: The guys, Moroccan, drink beer and alcohol, smoking cigars in here and fight her. All night fight her.

KAKISSIS: British volunteer aid worker Luke Judge says many of these migrants paid smugglers thousands of dollars to get here because they assumed the European Union would welcome them.

LUKE JUDGE: When they get here, having risked their lives in their boats, and Europe says, we were accepting you but we're not anymore. Goodbye.

KAKISSIS: But only a few say they will go home. Many are trying to buy fake Syrian or Afghan passports, whatever it takes to keep moving west. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.