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IDOMENI, Greece – According to their Greek travel papers, the two young Syrian brothers are both 110 years old, born to different parents. The officials who processed them upon arrival were so overwhelmed by the crush of migrants entering Greece that they botched the paperwork.
Escalating bureaucratic chaos is making life even harder for thousands of Syrian refugees already grappling with exhaustion, hunger and uncertainty — as they seek a safe haven from war back home.
Every day, courts in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, some 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the border with Macedonia, hand down token 30-day jail suspended sentences to dozens of Syrians caught with Greek transit papers that are faulty because of careless mistakes by harried police clerks. It slows down their journey, as well as Greece's creaking court system.
"Unfortunately, refugee reception facilities in Greece are minimal," said Christos Gkortselidis, a lawyer for the two Syrian men, aged 19 and 25. "Nobody explains their rights to them, and as a result they are arrested and convicted for no reason at all."
Greece is at the forefront of Europe's escalating refugee crisis, and has received 160,000 people since January, four times the total for all of 2014. According to the United Nations, over 50,000 people reached the financially broken country last month alone.
Nearly all of the Syrians risk the short sea-crossing from nearby Turkey, cramming into frail rubber dinghies to reach the Greek islands where they are screened, given temporary travel documents and directed to apply for additional papers. Unlike many other migrants, Syrians who can prove they are from the war-torn country qualify for asylum and are therefore granted temporary Greek transit papers.
With these, they head for Idomeni, some 80 kilometer (50 miles) northwest of Thessaloniki, on the northern border with Macedonia — the gateway to a journey north. The plan is to continue by train to Serbia, sneak into Hungary and then make their asylum application in wealthier EU countries such as Germany, The Netherlands or Sweden.
Only much is lost in translation, as overburdened bureaucrats enter often wildly incorrect information simply because they have trouble communicating with the migrants — or are too tired to notice typing errors.
Conflicting instructions by Greek screening authorities add to the confusion. On the eastern island of Kos, Syrian refugees are told they must travel to Athens — and nowhere else — to get the additional documents. But elsewhere, there is no ban on avoiding the capital, which gives them a speedier route up north.
Traveling to Athens puts so much of a strain on the migrants — both in terms of time and money — that many ignore the order and head straight to Thessaloniki, or else cut short their Athens stay without receiving the required papers.
Some are then arrested in Thessaloniki, convicted of breaching the travel order — and ordered back to Athens. But the justice is arbitrary, as others are allowed to obtain the extra documents on site, without going through a court ordeal.
Gkortselidis, the lawyer, said his clients "were convicted because they had the bad luck to enter Greece through Kos, while if they had been on another island they would not have gone through this." The brothers, who have since crossed into Macedonia, asked not to be named for fear that could further damage their asylum bid.
"This is absurd," said Yaman Al Sayed, a 19-year-old computer student from Damascus, who was arrested in Thessaloniki for skirting Athens, but released without being taken to court. "They could have given me the document anywhere in Greece. There are so many people waiting in Athens."
Al Sayed followed proper procedure by traveling from Kos to Athens, but there he was told he would have to wait four days for his papers — incurring hotel and living expenses beyond his means. "So far, I have spent 1,800 euros since I reached Turkey," he said. "So I got the train to Thessaloniki, was arrested and sent back to Athens."
Aghast at being told once again to wait four days, he caught a chartered coach to the Macedonian border — and was able to cross over on the strength of his Syrian passport alone.
To complicate things further, all refugees are expressly forbidden from heading to the Macedonian border, as Greece keeps up the pretense that it is not encouraging illegal migration — even though everyone knows that's where they will go anyway.
A Vima FM radio journalist touched a raw nerve Monday, when he asked Migration Policy Minister Tassia Christodoulopoulou where the refugees go after being screened in Greece: "You find out where they go. ... I won't do your reporting for you," the minister snapped. "I told some of your colleagues that they 'disappear,' because there are some things I can't say in public."
At Idomeni's train station, there is no doubt about the answer.
Hundreds of migrants pitch up at the station every day, taking regular intercity buses or specially chartered coaches. Most are left to walk the last 5-kilometer (3-mile) stretch, moving usually at night in groups of 20-30 people — including women clasping sleeping children or pushing prams, and men carrying the family luggage. Armed with new transit papers, they squash into crammed trains that will take them to the next border crossing — Serbia.
Mohmmad Abdul Aziz, 32, was in one group walking along a highway toward Idomeni with his three children, aged 5, 7 and 10.
"We are very tired," he said. "Things are not very easy — but not too bad either. I know full well that the paper I have forbids us from coming (to the Macedonian border) but I really have to leave Greece, to continue the journey."
Nicholas Paphitis contributed from Athens.