Greece-Macedonia border camp unfazed by closure of route to Europe

Daily deliveries of identity documents needed to continue journeys goes on near Idomeni

The makeshift camp at the Greek-Macedonian border: It is unclear how Greece intends to remove people from the site near Idomeni. Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty

The makeshift camp at the Greek-Macedonian border: It is unclear how Greece intends to remove people from the site near Idomeni. Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty


Most reluctant residents of the refugee camp at the Greece-Macedonia frontier refused to abandon their odyssey yesterday, despite bold EU claims to have slammed shut the well-trodden Balkan route to western Europe.

The gate in the razor-wire-clad border fence stayed closed, but some 14,000 people here continued a routine of queuing for food, collecting firewood and tidying their tents, as children helped out, slept, or played in the waterlogged fields.

For others, the daily routine includes waiting for the regular arrival of a red-and-yellow courier van, which is quickly surrounded by eager migrants hoping to receive a package from home containing identity documents.

“We have been here at this camp for 10 days, and one month in Greece, ” explained Tareq, a Yazidi from Iraq, who received his identification card in Tuesday morning’s delivery.

“This will help me move on. I cannot get to Germany without this, they won’t let me through the borders,” he said, expressing a widespread hope among people at Idomeni that, somehow, they will be allowed to reach western Europe.

Scores of people collected similar couriered packages, marked only with their name, the address “Idomeni, Greece”, and a tracking number that matched one they had received by email from the sender back home.

It is common knowledge in Idomeni that EU and Turkish leaders now claim to have shut down a route that brought well over one million people to western Europe in the last year, but to most turning back is still more daunting than going on.

“If we no-no-no other choice, then we will go back to Afghanistan,” said Shafi Ulah (18), beside two of his friends from Kunduz.

“If there is any way to stay in Europe, we will take it. But we have no money left – we spent $2,000 [€1,800] each to come here and sold all we had at home. There is nothing to go back to.”

Details of the latest EU-Turkish plan are still sketchy and implementation will be extremely difficult; the Greek and Turkish governments met to discuss the issue yesterday, as the United Nations and major rights groups questioned the legality and morality of various aspects of the scheme.

It is also unclear how Greece intends to remove people from Idomeni, or whether the country can cope with a continuing flow of arrivals to its islands from Turkey.

Strongly encouraged

He said that by March 15th, Greece “will have a capacity of at least 37,400 people”.

Meanwhile, Greece’s minister for migration Ioannis Mouzalas told an Austrian newspaper: “We currently have 33,000 refugees and migrants in Greece. If there are 50,000, we will provide accommodation for 50,000. If there are 70,000, then 70,000.” Asked if Greece could cope with more than that, he answered: “No.”

For some at Idomeni, however, the dismal conditions and deepening despair were too much, and they decided to head back south – some to Athens where they could apply for asylum in Greece, while others said they would try to go home, even to war-ravaged Syria.

“My wife and I have paid €20 each for a ticket on this bus. It will take us to Athens and from there we want to go home, to Idlib,” in northern Syria, said Mohammad Akhmad, standing by the open door of a coach at Idomeni.

“It is too bad here,” he said softly, casting a final gaze around the camp.

“Where is Europe? Where are European people? Why don’t they help us?”