Some 14,000 people waited at the border between Greece and Macedonia on Monday to learn their fate from European and Turkish leaders, with many saying that they would try to move north with smuggling gangs if Balkan borders remained all but closed.
Reports that European Union states and Ankara would end their Brussels summit by pledging to seal the so-called Balkan route to migrants and refugees caused alarm at Idomeni, a Greek border village now dominated by a vast makeshift camp.
"I don't know what people will do if that happens – it might be bad here," said Abdullah (25) from Aleppo in northern Syria.
“People will be angry. They are tired and don’t know what to do. Most people here are from Syria, and there is no way to go back there. My father was killed by shrapnel from a rocket last year, and I left home just to survive,” he explained.
After Austria last month introduced restrictions on how many people it would allow each day to seek asylum and cross the country to Germany, Balkan states to the south announced strict limits on the numbers they would admit.
Police chiefs of
and Macedonia agreed to allow only about 580 asylum seekers to transit their countries each day, with the result that more than 30,000 migrants and refugees have become trapped in Greece.
By far the largest group is at Idomeni, where for more than a year people from the Middle East, Africa and Asia followed train tracks through scrub and woodland to cross from Greece to Macedonia, en route to western Europe.
Now the tracks are blocked to migrants and refugees by a large metal gate, which police swing open only to allow cargo trains through, and a high steel security fence topped with razor wire seals much of the border either side of Idomeni.
"People will not just leave. They will try any way they can to get to Europe," said Abdullah, an engineer who wants to settle in Sweden or Canada.
“Everyone talks about going with ‘mafia’,” he said, referring to people smugglers who are easy to find in the border area, hanging around petrol stations and guesthouses near Idomeni and showing little fear of the local police.
"People give each other phone numbers for mafia, or get them on Facebook. People say mafia can get you into Macedonia and then Serbia. And some talk about a different route, through Albania. "
Albania is a drive of about 250km west from Idomeni, and from there migrants could turn north to
and then Croatia, or even seek to cross the Adriatic Sea to
, a boat journey of some 80 km.
Greece’s government said on Monday it was building nine new facilities to accommodate migrants, providing shelter for 17,500 people.
Dimitris Vitsas, the deputy defence minister, said that 16,000 of those places should be ready by the end of this week, and that it could be somewhere to relocate people at Idomeni, most of whom now sleep in flimsy tents pitched in the fields and along the railway tracks.
Children play among train wagons, and three were reported hurt on Monday, one seriously, when they were electrocuted by power lines over the track.
After several days of mild spring weather that bathed the lush green fields and blossom orchards around Idomeni in sunshine, the weather turned inclement on Monday, with a cold wind driving in dark clouds and whipping dust around the camp.
"There is a crisis of solidarity in Europe," said Babar Baloch, a spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency at Idomeni.
“It seems leaders do not understand, or do not want to understand, what Greece is dealing with. If there is no solidarity, no willingness to share the burden among EU states, then there is no way out of the crisis – they can’t just shut the door completely on Greece,” he added.
As the darkness gathered and the chill deepened, families started to light firewood gleaned from around the camp and distributed by local people. Shirin from northern Iraq bundled up her two young sons in sweaters and jackets.
“We thought we would be safe in Europe, that Europe helped people to escape from war,” she said, as smoke from the first fires drifted away over the border fence.
“Now we see it’s not like that. The doors ahead are closed to us, and the way back is also closed. What should we all do? Where should we all go?”