Can Europe Make It?

Border games and their pawns

Balkan borders dominoed shut last week, ostensibly to block ‘economic migrants’, and now only Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis may pass. Those trapped, however, have come too far to stay quiet.

Cameron Thibos
22 November 2015
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People queue on the left to try their luck crossing the guarded Greek-Macedonian border on 21 November. Source: Cameron Thibos.IDOMENI, GREECE (21 Nov, 11:00 am)—The road connecting the village of Idomeni in northern Greece with the Macedonian border is marked only by a green sign pointing the way to the “station of sanitary veterinary inspection of Idomeni”. Follow this road as it cuts through a field of harvested crops and scattered garbage and you’ll soon realise the signpost’s sad irony. At the street’s end sit humans rather than animals, but caught in the caprice of border policy their situation today is little different from that of livestock. Their shelter is cold and foetid, their conditions unhygienic, and they sleep, eat, and stand on the wrong side (from their point of view) of a firmly shut fence. There is one difference though: these animals can also shout.

VIDEO: Individuals denied entry into Macedonia because they are not Syrian, Iraqi, or Afghan protest at the border on 21 November. Source: Cameron Thibos

“Europe, please open the door!” The sound of their voices becomes stronger and more varied as others join in the chant. “Let us in! We need help! … We want in! We want out!” Men in Macedonian military fatigues stare back at them from across the razor wire. Activists say that the soldiers have been there for a while, checking papers and slowly but surely letting people through. But since Wednesday night (18 Nov) they have enforced a new rule: only Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans—apparently assumed to be the only ‘real’ refugees—can now pass. Those without the very perverse ‘luck’ of being from these countries must wait or go back.

Many are stuck, and volunteers say the current population is around 2000 and growing. They come from many places. The founders of the Facebook group ‘forgotten in Idomeni’, which was started a few days ago by two volunteers at the site, state in their opening post that there are “a lot of people from Africa (Somalia, Congo, Sudan, Ivory Cost…), Maghreb, Lebanon, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Iran…that are stuck here.” A group of Iranians started the first protest Friday night, and since then the situation has become evermore tense. “By the hour the Macedonian state is bringing more and more forces,” observes Nefeli, a volunteer from Thessaloniki. A truck-mounted water cannon, set back a bit behind the soldiers, sits in silence.

Indeed, one is struck by the silence on the Macedonian side of the border. A large and vocal queue of people stand on the Greek side of the fences, waiting to try their luck. Occasionally one is let through. They walk down the tracks and out of sight, as apart from the soldiers there is seemingly nothing on the other side: no tents, no ‘reception centre’, no infrastructure. The calm is deceptive though. Gabriela, a Macedonian activist I meet back in Thessaloniki, tells me that the Macedonian state has declared the border a “buffer zone” and it is illegal for activists, protestors and grassroots monitors to approach it. However, ten minutes down the tracks on the Macedonian side is a closed, militarised camp where documents are once again checked—the space in between, which looks like a free path from the vantage point of Idomeni, actually functions as an airlock. Iranians and other now unacceptable nationalities are also trapped there she says, and since Friday night they have also begun to protest.

This selective, nationality-based profiling first appeared on the Slovenian-Croatian border late last Wednesday and, in the course of a few hours, dominoed south and east across the region. What prompted Slovenia to suddenly change its policy is unclear. However, activists point out that after Slovenian officials refused to let in some migrants trying to cross over from Croatia the domino effect has a certain logic. Croatia, afraid of having migrants piling up on the Slovenian border, immediately blocked its own eastern border with Serbia. Serbia did the same with Macedonia, and Macedonia followed suit with Greece. This left Greece, with no border of its own to block, to face those coming in from the sea by itself. It’s like a game of musical chairs, where nobody wants to get stuck holding all the migrants.

Slovenian officials justified their actions to the Associated Press by saying that they are working to better guard against “economic migrants”. As fatuous as that explanation is, it is at least consistent with the assumptions most likely underlying the triage currently taking place. It does not, however, answer the question of ‘why now?’

Here today, gone tomorrow?

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Laying trampled on side of the road leading up to the border crossing, the cover of this pamphlet reads “My life is new”. Source: Cameron Thibos.

The individuals I meet are, quite reasonably, confused about what had just gone wrong. They had heard the border was open, that people were being let through, so they spent the last of their money to hop a boat and come. Now what?

“If you had arrived four days earlier, you could have passed,” Nefeli is forced to explain to a young man who stops to ask for assistance. “The borders were open to everyone”. However Hasan (name changed), 16 years old and small for his age, came to Idomeni with his father only two days ago. He does come from Syria, he says, but the border guards do not believe him.

There is a reason for this. Hasan is a Palestinian from Syria, who up until two years ago was living in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus. His family was forced to flee in 2013, along with the vast majority of the inhabitants of Yarmouk, when the camp got caught in the crossfire of Syrian governmental and opposition forces. Hasan and his family first traveled to Lebanon. When work proved unavailable—Lebanon, like all other neighbouring countries, refuses to grant Syrian refugees work permits—he and his father left his mother and siblings behind and set out for Turkey and then Greece. “We heard [the European border] was open for everyone,” he explains. “We know it’s dangerous on the boat, but we need to live”.

The smugglers they hired, however, chose to maximise their profit by filling the boat with people and throwing the luggage overboard, including the satchel containing Hasan’s passport. He says he explained the situation when they landed in Greece—Hasan speaks perfectly good English—but the border guard wrote down on his registration paper “Palestinian” only. And Palestinians, as of four days ago, cannot pass.

Waiting rooms

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The tracks head straight through the Greek-Macedonian border. The camp lies on both sides of the tracks, on the Greek side. Source: Cameron Thibos.

If the Macedonian authorities reverse their policy then Hasan and his father hope to make it to Sweden, where two of his uncles have lived since 1982. From there they will find a way to send for his mother and five siblings. Until such time, or until they come up with a new plan, Idomeni is their home. The location is ill-equipped for the task at hand, especially as more refugees—apparently oblivious to the recent changes—continue to arrive.

The camp, as it has become only in the past two months, straddles the train tracks heading straight into Macedonia. One side is a mass of medium-sized pup tents on loan from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), or purchased (at inflated prices, volunteers assure me) with private funds. They’re the sort you would take on a summer camping trip; hardly something that will retain heat in winter or repel rain. Greece may have legendary beaches in summer, but it is a foggy eleven degrees today and it’s set to rain for four of the next five days. People are wrapped in whatever layers they have and many tend small fires on the gravel of the tracks. On the other side are four larger MSF tents, as well as five towering tents from UNHCR with a theoretical capacity of 300 people each. They’d have to be stacked head to toe inside for that to be true, however, and at the moment many people have pitched their pup tents inside these canvas structures in an attempt to escape the elements.

Other than that, there are a few rows of portable toilets, a couple of tents for medical staff, and a shipping container marked “children’s playground.” Not much else. I duck into the last of these as a small drone maneuvers itself above the crowd, only to beat a hasty retreat back to the Macedonian side of the border once people start waving at it. Inside the container, children sit on small plastic stools provided by an NGO and play with some colouring books. One kid, at most two years old, runs past me, only to trip and scratch himself as he tries to step over the lip of the door. He doesn’t cry. “You find a lot of adults here crying,” Nefeli tells me a bit later, “and the kids are trying to comfort them. They don’t understand what it means for them if they don’t cross the border.” Indeed, there are a lot of aspects of the current situation at Idomeni that are hard to understand, even if you’re not a child.

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