Idomeni, Greece – dead end

Idomeni refugee camp was,over the last three weeks, the epicentre of the refugee crisis in Europe. The growing violence in the camp arose from the closure of the border. Português.

Ana Catarina Milhazes
16 December 2015


Pre-Schengen passport stamp from Idomeni, Greece. Wikimedia Commons.

Idomeni is not an official refugee camp; it is a small and quiet Greek village that was partly occupied by a growing population that was stopped at the Republic of Macedonia’s border. For those coming from Turkey through Greece, the Republic of Macedonia is the first country of the so-called “Balkan route”. Since the summer, transit has increased massively. Daily, about 3000 people cross the border to enter Macedonia. This year, about 729,000 people have arrived in Greece, claiming for asylum, according to data from the UNHCR. Among them are migrants and refugees. The forced differentiation between them, considered unfair by many, has led to major protests and growing violence at the camp.

Five days after the November’s Paris attacks, the Republic of Macedonia and Serbia limited the crossing of their borders by Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis. Those who were forbidden to enter Europe through Macedonia, since 18 November, were forced to stay in the camp. Nationalities varied: there were people from the Maghreb – mostly Moroccans – many Iranians, Palestinians, Ghanaians, Somalis, Sudanese, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Nepalese and Indians. 80% of the people at the camp were men. The Iranians, Palestinians, Ghanaians, Somalis, Sudanese and Nepalese came mostly with their families, whereas many people from the Maghreb, Pakistanis and Indians were men, aged between 25 and 35, who came alone or with friends. Many of those who could or can cross the border – Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis and Palestinian refugees from Syria (Palestinian refugees from Lebanon cannot cross the border) – came with their families.

The closure of the border is a measure that aims to differentiate between refugees and migrants. However, if this measure protects Europe from the coming of marginal groups who aim to illegitimately take advantage of the right of asylum, it also affects those who can and should be able to claim for their right of asylum. Such was the case of most Iranians, who were stuck in the camp for about 15 days. Aslam, a shy and quiet Iranian boy about 10 years old, raised his head to smile and lowered it so that he could concentrate on his drawing. He joined the protests like all the others. He drew the symbol of the UNHCR (a pair of hands holding a person) three times and wrote around it repeatedly “help, help, help”, and in the middle “IRAN”.

Three tents from camp A – the camp that is closer to the border and the one that is policed – were mostly filled with Iranians. After arriving from Athens, they were unaware that they were forbidden to cross the border. There were many Iranians inside the buses that arrived daily at the camp. Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis arriving with them followed their way to the border, but Iranians were forced to remain there. Nassin, 35 years old, arrived to Greece by sea, coming from Turkey. She came with her two sons, her husband and two other relatives. Each of them paid €1200 for the boat passage – a boat 10m long with 45 people in it. They are an Iranian family. Nassin and her husband are translators (English – Farsi). Nassin’s brother-in-law is in England and they wish to travel there. Nassin wanted to know if they would be allowed to the cross the border and what country might better welcome them. To many refugees, Germany is only a idea, usually suggested by smugglers, not a planned and inflexible choice.

Both those who were forbidden to cross and those who were allowed to cross the border had no knowledge about the route through Europe and about the procedures. Volunteers at the camp helped them cross into Macedonia and gave them information about the route as far as Austria (Macedonia – Serbia – Croatia – Slovenia – Austria). Those not allowed to cross were helped as well. Tents, sleeping bags and blankets were given. The amount distributed was, however, less that what was needed. Food, for instance – which was given out by groups of volunteers coming from Greece, Germany, Portugal and the US – was not enough for all the people at the camp. Food was not given to those crossing the border; they went directly to Gevgelija camp, on the side of the Republic of Macedonia, where they were given a meal.

In the weeks between 27 November and 3 December, protests carried out by those blocked at the camp escalated. In the first days, protests were peaceful. Among the protesters, there were men as well as women and children. Protests were peaceful and almost passive – messages were written on cardboards and on tents. Some protesters went on hunger strike and sewed up their lips. On the 28 November, the Republic of Macedonia built a metal fence and barbed wire at the border. Gradually, as time passed and there were no signs of a flexible resolution on the part of the authorities, protests turned violent. Between 2 and 3 December, as the situation was uncontrollable and NGOs left the camp. On those days, tents from the UNHCR, including the one where workers gathered, those from Doctors Without Borders and one small tent were children could play were destroyed. The UNHCR called for an adequate intervention on the part of Greek police patrols, who were not allowed to intervene, unless in borderline cases.

It is necessary to prevent, but there was no prevention at Idomeni camp. FRONTEX will step in and settle at the camp soon. By now, only independent volunteers or volunteers from small NGOs are at the camp. They are clearly vulnerable and at risk. Under that uncontrollable situation, where even the police fences and gates were destroyed, the Republic of Macedonia decided to temporarily close the border, on 2 December. Buses with refugees coming from Athens continued to arrive, however. On 4 November, about 8000 people were at the camp – the camp should take, at maximum, 2500 people.

Contrary to what is believed, most people don’t speak or hardly speak English. Syrians are the most educated and those who better speak and understand English. Many Afghans, Iraqis and Iranians speak only Arabic or Farsi. To help all these people, there were at the camp only 6 interpreters, who were not all at the camp at the same time. Kurds who speak only Kurdish found it hard to explain themselves and to be understood. Frimesk is a 9-year-old Kurdish girl. Her mother tried to make herself clear, when speaking with an interpreter from the UNHCR. They couldn’t understand each other – the interpreter spoke Arabic and Frimesk’s mother spoke Kurdish. I later, found Frimesk at the children’s tent and, with drawings and by gestures, could get to know her name, her age and her family constitution. She came with her mother, father and her younger brother. It’s hard to know more. There was no one to understand them, no one to help them cross the border.

The situation at the camp was overwhelming – to those arriving, fearing the chaotic scene, to those who stayed, upset by the lack of solutions, and to those who tried to help, who had no means or assistance to do it. After two weeks at a disorganized camp, it’s easy to understand its flaws and gaps. This is why cases of rape and harassment and suspicions of child trafficking increased. Some African women were said to prostitute themselves, possibly to earn money to go back to their countries.

Most of those forbidden to enter the Republic of Macedonia were also prevented from going back – many people have left everything behind to come to Europe; many had no money left for the return trip and were afraid to go back because of the debts they acquired so they could make it to Europe. Until recently, Idomeni was a dead end. There, many could neither go further or back. Everyone who was blocked at the camp was recently relocated to Athens. The problem was shifted, though not solved.

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