Macedonia border closure leaves refugees with no hope

Thousands stuck at Macedonia’s border with Greece as Skopje classifies them as “economic migrants”.

Macedonia refugee crisis
An estimated 3,000 asylum seekers are stuck at Macedonia's border with Greece [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Idomeni, Greece – Makeshift camps and flimsy tents are scattered along the train tracks leading to the Macedonian border, while some families are living in decrepit old train cars.

An abandoned cafe’s windows have been smashed out and inside are several tents and wet mattresses.

“Stop Europe’s racist borders,” graffiti reads on the outside wall. “Hunger,” another says plainly, in Arabic.

An estimated 3,000 asylum seekers remain stuck at the Idomeni border crossing in Greece because of Macedonia’s refusal to allow entry for those who cannot prove Iraqi, Syrian or Afghan citizenship.

Read more: Meet the Iranians turned away by Macedonia

Among those Macedonia has classified as “economic migrants” and barred from entry are Moroccans, Tunisians, Iranians, Algerians, Yemenis, Eritreans, Pakistanis and Somalis.

Macedonian President Gjorgje Ivanov has said the move was designed to prevent tension between Macedonians and those entering the country.

Ivanov said that any more than 2,000 refugees crossing through the country at any given moment would cause “permanent and direct threats and risks for national security”.

Yet, despite the closures, more people continue to arrive each day.

Ali, a 24-year-old law student from Iran, wants to go to Germany or the Netherlands.

“I would go anywhere, though,” he told Al Jazeera. “Who will take us?”

As he spoke, hundreds of heavily armed Greek border police in riot control gear assembled between the crowds gathered at the border and a fence erected last week by Macedonian forces.

“Iran is a beautiful country and people are very good, but the velayat-e faqih is terrorism,” said Ali, referring to the Iranian government’s founding ideology.

“The Iranian government, the ayatollah – they terrorise the people.”

Human rights groups have criticised Macedonia's tough measures [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
Human rights groups have criticised Macedonia’s tough measures [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

On the other side of the border, dozens of Macedonian troops smoked cigarettes and watched on.

Najeeb, 29, left his home town of Casablanca in Morocco 17 days ago. After hiring smugglers to transport him on a dinghy with more than 50 others from Turkey to a Greek island, he said he made it to the Macedonian border last week.

“They won’t let us pass,” he said. “I haven’t showered in seven days. There are five of us in a small tent. It’s very cold at night and it was raining a few days ago.”

Najeeb and his friends said they left Morocco because there was nothing there for them.

“We may not have a civil war like Syria, but we don’t have a future. There is a political war and the government oppresses everyone who demands their rights.”.

Although he hopes to be reunited with his brother in Italy, he is pessimistic.

“If the border is closed, it’s closed. I guess there’s no hope left, but we don’t know what else to do,” he said while coughing heavily. 


“I’m sick,” he said. “I need a doctor, but there aren’t enough doctors here and I don’t have any money to go see one on my own.”

Vassilis Naum, a surgeon at the Doctors of the World organisation, said there was heavy traffic in Idomeni for five months, followed by “an escalation” over the past two weeks.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Naum said that there was a health crisis among those who are passing through Idomeni and those who are stuck. “There is a water shortage here,” Naum said. “Many people don’t have food or medicine.

“We are dealing with widespread infections, colds, sore throats, diarrhoea, gastrointestinal problems – everything you can imagine. We expect it to get much worse if something doesn’t happen. The weather is getting worse and worse every day,” he added.

Naum was the first person to find a 22-year-old Moroccan man who died from electrocution Thursday after grabbing a live wire on the train tracks.

“I found him with 40 percent of his body burned,” he recalled. “He died immediately.”

After the man died, other Moroccans in Idomeni marched with his body to the Macedonian crossing point and confronted border police, who responded with rubber bullets and tear gas.

Human rights groups have criticised Macedonian measures.

“We urge Macedonia to end its discriminatory policy at the border, which is fuelling tensions,” Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty International’s deputy director for Europe and Central Asia, said in a statement.

“Thousands of people are caught between a rock and a hard place, in dire conditions and with no ability to claim asylum,” Van Gulik added.

Human Rights Watch has also denounced the border restrictions. Speaking to Al Jazeera, researcher Lydia Gall said that discriminating by nationality “is a violation of international refugee law”.

Most of the asylum seekers say they want to go to Germany or Sweden [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
Most of the asylum seekers say they want to go to Germany or Sweden [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Though Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans are still allowed to pass through Macedonia, the swelling queue has resulted in lengthy delays, leaving many to wait in line for long periods.

“They say the border is open for Syrians, but I’ve been here for three days just waiting,” said Mahmoud, a 24-year-old engineering student from Homs.

“We have nothing to do but sit here till they let us through. Homs is gone, all of Syria is gone,” he added, explaining that he hopes to obtain asylum in Germany or Sweden.

READ MORE: Refugee boats to Greece persist despite winter’s chill

On Thursday, Greece enacted the European Civil Union Protection Mechanism as its membership in the Schengen area came under pressure and agreed to allow the EU border agency Frontex on its border with Macedonia.

According to Greek Deputy Interior Minister Yiannis Mouzalas, more than 50,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Greece since November 1. Speaking to local media in Idomeni, he said: “There will be a solution soon for Idomeni. We are trying to convince people to return to Athens.

“We’re trying to resolve the problem without using force, without bloodshed,” he continued, adding that “the situation cannot go on indefinitely because if it does there will be casualties, there will be fights”.

More than 900,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Europe by sea so far this year, according to the United Nations refugee agency. At least 3,515 died at sea or are still missing.

Back at the Idomeni crossing, there is a steady soundtrack of children crying and people yelling for the line to move faster and others to stop pushing.

But Ahmed, a 37-year-old father of two and former school teacher from Iraq, has a smile on his face as the queue inches forward.

“We first saw death in Mosul,” he told Al Jazeera while waiting in line. “We saw it again on the boat. Now we’re going to Germany.”

Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland

Source: Al Jazeera