Greece strands thousands of refugees on islands as border restrictions drive crisis 'causing suicide attempts'

The UN refugee chief has warned of a catastrophic bottleneck of refugees in Greece

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The Independent Online

The Greek government is trapping thousands of refugees on islands in the Aegean Sea after ordering ferries to stop transporting them to the mainland.

Instructions were sent to transport companies and regional authorities on Friday morning as tightened restrictions on asylum seekers attempting to travel through Macedonia, Slovenia and Austria drove the situation in the country to crisis point.

Two Pakistani men appeared to try and hang themselves in a crowded public square in Athens as desperation grew among thousands of homeless migrants on Thursday.

People rush to cut down the two men, thought to be Pakistani

The government says it is imposing the ferry restrictions in order to build more temporary shelters but there are fears the move will deepen the humanitarian crisis on Aegean islands still seeing between one and five thousand people arrive every day in flimsy smugglers' boats from Turkey.

The Merchant Marine Ministry said chartered ferries docked in Lesbos and other islands would be used to provide temporary shelter until Sunday. 

Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which is providing medical care for refugees in Greece and elsewhere in Europe, said ferry services on Lesbos, Samos and Chios were being stopped.

The move was driven by caps on migration imposed by Austria and Slovenia, and Macedonia’s decision only to allow Syrian and Iraqi refugees over its border on their way to western Europe.

The unprecedented restrictions have hit Afghans, who make up roughly a quarter of those arriving in Europe, particularly hard and left thousands of asylum seekers sleeping in parks and on roads throughout Greece. 

Athens turned down a request by Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner to visit  next week after recalled its ambassador in anger over its refusal to allow any more than 3,200 migrants enter a day.

Pictures of two men appearing to attempt suicide in the middle of a public square have highlighted the increasing sense of desperation. 

Following Macedonia’s sudden decision to close its border to anyone but Syrians and Iraqis, tens of thousands of migrants have been left trapped in Greece, many without adequate food or shelter. 

A Pakistani man, who tried to commit suicide by hanging himself with twisted lengths of fabric from a tree, lies on the street as other migrants wait for the ambulance in central Athens' Victoria Square

Thousands had already arrived at the Macedonian border only to be turned away by police. 

On Thursday two men, believed to be brothers from Pakistan, made makeshift nooses and appeared to try and hang themselves from a tree in Victoria Square in Athens.

One of the men reportedly lost consciousness before ambulances arrived and took them both off to hospital for treatment. 

Both were released later that same day in a “good condition”.

Victoria Square has become a central point for stranded migrants and a police spokesman suggested the two men’s apparent suicide attempt was a public protest against Macedonia’s decision to severely restrict entry to the country.   

But psychiatrist Yiannis Chatzidakis, who works for Greek suicide prevention helpline Klimaka, told Al Jazeera: "The situation is increasingly becoming worse, so I don't find it strange that hopeless people with no home are willing to attempt to cut razor wire fences or even commit acts [like the one today] - regardless if they have mental health issues or not."

Refugees in Greece: Military takes over to speed up process

An estimated one million refugees have arrived in Greece since January 2015, seeking to pass through the Balkans and into mainland Europe.

With all migrant centres full, Greek officials have resorted to opening up sports stadiums as temporary accommodation.   

Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, criticised the border closures and warned the decision could lead to a catastrophic bottleneck of refugees in Greece.  

But he also said Greece needed to prepare for a situation where more than a few thousand people would be stuck in the country.   

He added: "But really we need to work on alternatives to that, we need to work on the restrictions, we need to work on relocation, we need to work especially on massive resettlement from Middle Eastern countries." 

Greek prime minster Alexis Tsipras threatened to block future EU agreements unless other European countries began taking in a share of migrants, insisting the country will not become “a permanent warehouse of souls”.  

Additional reporting by AP