The muddy fields of the Greek-Macedonian border crossing at the village of Idomeni have been host to recurring scenes of desperate refugees ever since the escalation of Europe’s border crisis in summer 2015. Still, more than a million people – mostly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan – managed to walk along the train tracks into Macedonia, and onward to sanctuary in northern Europe last year.
However, if the EU proves unable to counter an insurrection against the migration flow by the Balkan states and Austria, the drawbridge looks set to be permanently pulled up on the last safe overland passage for asylum seekers entering Europe.
Over the weekend, despite German chancellor Angela Merkel’s plea for a unified European response to the ceaseless flow of refugees, which has exceeded 100,000 since the beginning of 2016, Afghan nationals became the latest nationality to be denied legal entry at the Greek-Macedonian border.
As with previous policies, the decision came suddenly and without warning. With as many as three ferries a day docking at the mainland from the Aegean islands, each with up to 2,000 refugees on board, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras warned that his country was being turned into a “cemetery of souls”. Around Idomeni, the police began to round up Afghan nationals, putting them on buses and transporting them to already overflowing immigration camps.
‘We don’t trust the police’
At a motorway petrol station in the village of Polykastro, 20km from the Macedonian border, a group of nearly 200 Afghans held a sit-down protest against the prospect of being returned to Athens.
The Greek police responded forcibly, shoving, kicking and attempting to drag families on to the bus. One officer, looking up at a few European journalists present, bellowed: “These are your refugees!”
Craning his neck out of the bus door as police tried to wrench it shut, Umed Ahmedi, 18, from Kabul, shouted to Al Jazeera: “For days we have not eaten, and now everyone here is really disturbed. In Afghanistan every day there is war, killing, hand cutting, everything. I was a journalist and made an investigative report critical of the Taliban when they attacked the city of Kunduz, so what will happen to me if I return? Since I was a child I always dreamed that Europe would know the meaning of humanity, but now I’m sure they don’t.”
Watching the standoff, Javid, 24, a softly spoken construction worker from Mazar-i-Sharif, said that for him and his group, it was too late to turn back.
“We don’t trust the police – you saw them pushing us? If we go on the bus to the camp, maybe they will attack us again. And we are not even allowed to shelter here at the petrol station. We have been travelling for a month and a half and we saw death in front of our eyes. On the Iranian border they were shooting and in the sea people were drowning.”
Javid explained that he was fleeing the same kind of targeted sectarian killing as that seen in Iraq and Syria.
“Some of my family have been killed by the Taliban because we are hazara [a mainly Shia minority] and we are their enemies. We don’t dare to leave our house at night. Their version of religion says they should kill us. And now Europe says the border is only open for Syrian and Iraq people. This is racism. Why, when we have had 40 years of war, are we not allowed to cross?”
The EU’s relocation programme
Last November, thousands of protesters descended on to the streets of Kabul demanding justice after seven hazaras were allegedly kidnapped and beheaded by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)-aligned fighters.
After failing to quell the protest, the police changed tactics and told the Afghans that the bus would return them to the Macedonian border. A chorus of exclamations and hand-waving followed, to signify that none of the Afghans believed the claim, and after some deliberation the crowd rose to their feet and began to march back along the motorway towards Idomeni cradling their children.
Discarded blankets hung on gorse bushes along the road as the procession of nearly 200 made their slow progress to the blocked frontier, passing by hilltop World War I cemeteries and monuments commemorating Allied soldiers’ participation on the Macedonian front on the same ground nearly a century ago.
Last year, Afghans formed 21 percent of refugee sea arrivals in Europe and more than 30,000 have arrived in Greece in 2016.
Unlike Syrians and Iraqis, they are not eligible for the EU’s relocation programme, the troubled scheme which intended to resettle 160,000 refugees from Italy and Greece around the continent, yet, due to the receiving countries’ intransigence, so far has barely managed to move 600.
Their only legal option now is to claim asylum in Greece, though anyone with money will consult a smuggler in Athens to arrange onward movement.
‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again!’
On a wooded slope by the motorway to Macedonia, behind a collection of ruined shacks, a group of young Iranians and Pakistanis lounge on the ground, passing around flat bread.
If Athens has become Europe’s urban smuggling centre, Idomeni can certainly claim to be its rural franchise. Since the Balkan states began to restrict entry to Syrians, Iraqis and (formerly) Afghans, the remote area has seen a burgeoning of smuggling operations, threading all the ‘unwanted’ nationalities through the patchwork of nations between Greece and northern Europe.
The group is waiting until nightfall, and the smuggler’s call, to be led, eventually, to Italy. They were informed that the route, which costs €2000 ($2,208), would take them through Hungary, which notoriously last September erected a fence on its border with Serbia and Croatia. Now that numerous fences are springing up across Europe, it seems that smuggling routes have diverted to the most direct path.
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again!” one Pakistani said, smiling.
But entrusting their voyage to a smuggler can be a treacherous and violent endeavour, and sometimes even deadly. In January, the Hotel Hara car park, opposite the forest, was the scene of a murder between rival Afghan and Pakistani smuggling gangs.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented reports from refugees who claimed to have suffered assaults at the hands of the Macedonian police, and it is common for smugglers to suddenly disappear with their money, forcing them to return to Athens impoverished and stranded.
There are also persistent reports among aid workers of more macabre happenings across the border in Macedonia. A senior asylum official working at Idomeni, who asked to be anonymous as they were not authorised to speak to the press, told Al Jazeera: “Two different groups of refugees told us that they saw dead people in the forest. They were saying their stomachs were open and their organs removed. I tried to ask them if it was some sort of surgery or the animals got to them, but the smell was unbearable and difficult for them to approach to see clearly. One was willing to testify in court if necessary, and was able to give details. I don’t know if they died there, or were killed, or maybe it is organ trafficking and they are disposing bodies there.”
‘We thought we were safe, now we don’t know’
Just outside the white tents at the Macedonian border camp, one of the last Afghans penned in by the police on the train tracks, Masud Ahmad, 27, from Kabul, leans on a wire fence as his two daughters, aged two and seven, sit with his wife on the ground. He told Al Jazeera that he had already spent $18,000 for his family to reach Greece.
“Everyone is paying too much money to risk their lives. In Afghanistan, every day we have Taliban, Daesh [a name sometimes used for ISIL], suicide attacks …. You see the news, Kabul isn’t safe. We don’t want much, just a space.”
Masud gestures to his oldest daughter who smiles up at him. “Since we arrived she asks me, ‘Are we going back to the sea?’ I tell her no, we are here now, and we will not go back,” he says.
Jolien Colpaert, the head of the medical team of Doctors Without Borders (MSF), told Al Jazeera that their doctors earlier struggled to get access to treat the Afghans surrounded by riot police wielding tear gas and batons.
“We treated some traumatised families after we witnessed the police kicking and pushing them. I think we’re heading for a total border closure and we will lose a safe passage. When that happens it will be chaos and we are starting to look at possible alternative routes opening up elsewhere in northern Greece, maybe Albania.”
As the skies begin to darken over the Macedonia entry point, ringed by razor wire and soldiers, the effects of tighter border controls, even for Iraqi and Syrian refugees, becomes apparent.
Mohammed, 30, from Homs in Syria, clutches a folder of documents, including marriage certificates, university papers and an ID card from Mercy Corps, the US aid agency which was his former employer in Syria. After waiting for days, Mohammed and his group entered Macedonia, only to be refused within seconds after they were asked to provide passports.
He told Al Jazeera: “I don’t know what I have to do. My parents were killed in Homs, so I ran to Aleppo, then I ran from the bombs. Plus, I worked with the Americans so my life is already at risk. That border guard is crazy, me and my friends have a lot of proof that we are Syrian, and there are many ways to check it if they want. Greece is good, the police helped us, Macedonia is the problem. And now we are here, in no man’s land. We can neither go back nor forward.”
Mohammed pointed to one of his fellow travellers.
“That guy is from [ISIL-controlled] Raqqa. Is he supposed to ask Daesh nicely for his passport? When we arrived in Europe, we caught our breath and thought we were safe, but now I don’t know.”