Idomeni, Greece – If refugees encamped at Idomeni are hoping for the current European summit to resolve their plight, they are likely to be disappointed. The summit is focused on stopping new arrivals in Turkey, rather than in the relocation of those already in Europe.
Yet it is on this summit that many here are pinning their last hopes. “If they don’t open the border after the [summit] meeting I will return to Syria. I will pay smugglers to take me back,” says Mohammed Hasan, a 26-year-old business graduate from Aleppo.
A bomb demolished his house, killing his parents and two brothers, while he was minding the family clothing store. Two months ago, he paid smugglers $800 to get to Turkey, and another $900 to jump on a boat to Lesbos. He hopes to be reunited with one surviving brother in Germany.
In doing so he has skipped his army duty. “Now the army – they want me,” he says. “If they catch me maybe they [will] kill me – or give me a gun.”
Hasan has been in Idomeni, on the Greek border with former Yugoslav Macedonia, for 17 days, but that is enough to make him contemplate the dangers of returning.
“You see these people,” he says with a glance at hundreds of refugees in the tents surrounding Eidomeni train platform, which no longer functions as a passenger station. “Animals cannot live here. If you want [you can] stand for three or four hours in line to get a sandwich.”
Crestfallen at the tent city
Some refugees still arrive here. Three newly arrived Syrian mothers look crestfallen at the tent city around them. They tap messages into their mobile phones despondently.
An enterprising driver parks his bus on the main road through the muddy camp: “Bus to Athens”, reads a handwritten note in the window – though he says he has few takers at the moment.
Many are hoping against hope. “I think the [summit] won’t change the [situation with] the border but I hope it will because we have to go to Germany,” says Iman, an Arabic language teacher from Idlib in Syria. “We cannot go back to Syria – impossible.”
In front of her family tent, her husband and children tend a small fire made from logs handed out by charities.
The Idomeni camp stretches out for hundreds of yards along the railway track that crosses the border, and for hundreds of yards on either side. Authorities estimate that 12,000 people are here, but only a minority sleep in the large marquee tents the UN has set on dry concrete slab and filled with more than 100 bunk-beds each.
The vast majority sleeps in camping tents set directly on to muddy fields, or the coarse gravel of the railway tracks. Their mornings are spent queuing for healthcare or food handouts, and buying eggs, potato chips, rice, bread, tomatoes, cucumbers, oranges and bananas from the back of pick-up trucks run by Roma.
By afternoon, they light individual fires from foraged wood, old railway sleepers and rubbish, on which to cook their lunch or warm tinned milk.
Children are constantly coughing, and sickness runs high.
“We have many cases of respiratory disease, pneumonia, because the living conditions are not OK,” says Marie-Elizabeth Ingres from Doctors Without Borders. The Paris-based NGO has brought 140 doctors to Idomeni and the surrounding area.
Doctors of the World are here, too, and a German medical charity, Search and Rescue, plans to bring two fully staffed mobile clinics.
“Despite our efforts … it’s not the NGOs who can manage the situation. It’s too big,” says Ingres.
Volunteers step up
Just as NGOs supplement inadequate state aid, volunteers are supplementing the NGOs, but demand greatly outstrips supply. The clamour for clothes is such that volunteers distribute them at night.
Another nocturnal duty is the allocation of tents. “At about 11pm we do a tent patrol, see who the new families are,” says Christine, a Canadian volunteer who preferred not to use her real name. “They’re the ones sitting in the fields.”
Shortages impose tough choices. Ted, a volunteer from the UK, remembers a woman who stood for hours in the rain with her baby, waiting to be relocated to a dry tent, holding up the outspread fingers of one hand and shouting, “Five!”
“She took me to this tiny little tent in a puddle where she opened the door and there were four further children shivering, one of them in nothing but boxer shorts and a T-shirt, physically shaking. She passed me her baby and picked up one of the other children and passed it to me, and then another – I had three of the children and I became overcome with emotion. It took all my might to bite my tongue and hold back my tears.”
Volunteers have been arriving from all over the world – 150 in the past few weeks alone, as Idomeni camp has mushroomed. The construction of the border fence by the former Yugoslav Macedonia, and the gradual tightening of border controls, which culminated in a complete border closure earlier this month, mean that refugees have now spilled outside the official camps.
A small hotel in the nearby town of Polykastro serves as a 24-hour base of volunteer operations. By 10am, a dozen of them are chopping vegetables to put into three vast, 40-litre pots, where they are gradually turned into soup over gas fires. Others cut sandwiches. The entire payload is delivered to Idomeni in the afternoon.
Hope is all that’s left
Refugees put up with their lot in the hope of moving on, and even false hope acts like a flint to tinder. On March 13, refugees were handed a flyer with a map of the border fence that purported to show a way through it.
The flyer’s origins remain unknown, but the following day hundreds of people set out to find this secret passage.
“Morale was very high [because of the flyer],” says Ted. “I can sympathise that they wanted to believe it.”
Christine and Ted say they tried to stop the march. “Of course it didn’t work,” says Christine. “[Refugees] said, ‘Nothing that’s ahead of us can be worse than what’s behind us.'”
“There was a man in a wheelchair and three of his sons were trying to push him up the hill through mud,” says Christine.
“They asked, ‘Is this the way to the border?'” Eight kilometres into the trek, she says, “I saw this young guy with a club foot and one arm slung over each of his friends limping slowly along through a muddy field… I saw a young boy leading his blind father by a scarf.”
Children were passed arm-to-arm over a torrent, quick and cold with fresh rain. An elderly woman fainted in the middle of the torrent and it took three volunteers to carry her across. People dropped their blankets, tents and bags as their strength drained. A heavily pregnant woman and her husband pressed on with their first-born infant, refusing rest.
The expedition ended in disaster. The refugees managed to end-run the border fence, but were arrested as they entered former Yugoslav Macedonia, along with the volunteers and journalists who accompanied them.
“For sure, Germany don’t want us,” says Hasan. “European countries don’t want us. Lebanon is a small country, but there are more than three million Syrians there. Here [in Europe] there are many large countries and they have one million and say it is difficult.”
When the rain began, morale was shattered, says Christine.
“I had a father clutching my arm, with red eyes, saying, ‘I spent 3,000 dollars. It was all I had – to come here. Europe was my big dream, this safety was my big dream.’ He was standing in a puddle crying, ‘I am here! I am here! What is this?'”