ATHENS (Reuters) - Three Syrian children holding balloons follow Constantina Tsouklidou who is handing out toys and food to refugees sheltering by the hundreds in a ferry passenger terminal at the Greek port of Piraeus.
“I don’t have an income but I have a child,” she said before handing out another balloon, while her sister distributed milk.
Tsouklidou, 50, is one of thousands of Greeks volunteering their time to assist refugees and migrants stranded in Greece.
She is also one of the legions of Greece’s unemployed.
Greece, whose economy was struggling even before Europe’s migrant crisis and which has received more than 240 billion euros since its first international bailout in 2010, is in its eighth year of recession. More than a million people are unemployed, according to statistics agency ELSTAT, which put the latest jobless rate at 24.6 percent.
“Half of the Greek population has to a smaller or bigger extent assisted refugees. We are not like central Europe,” Tsouklidou told Reuters, referring to border closures through the Balkans.
At least 25,000 people were stranded in Greece on Tuesday, their journey to wealthier central and northern European nations blocked by the failure of European nations to agree a common policy to deal with one of the worst humanitarian crises in decades.
Austria and countries along the Balkans migration route have imposed restrictions on their borders, limiting the numbers able to cross. Many of the migrants hope to reach Germany. Macedonian police fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of migrants who stormed the border from Greece on Monday.
“I am worried about what will happen if people keep coming in and the borders remain closed,” said Kyriakos Sarantidis, 65, who donates time cooking for refugees from a minivan parked at Pireaus port.
Greece’s migration minister said on Sunday the number of migrants trapped in Greece could reach up to 70,000 in coming weeks if the borders remain sealed, as refugees fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and North Africa continue to arrive in Greece, mainly on small boats from Turkey.
At Victoria Square, a downtrodden area of central Athens where many homeless refugees have converged, Greeks turned up in droves with bags of food, fruit and medicine after seeing images on television of families sleeping in the open, on cardboard boxes, on chilly winter nights.
Eleftheria Baltatzi, a 73-year-old pensioner, was one of the many people who saw images of sick children on television and turned up at the square with medicine and food. “I made toasted cheese sandwiches,” she said.
“We also have people who are hungry and need help, but these people have a bigger need.”
Editing by Janet Lawrence