When I visited the makeshift refugee camp at Idomeni this month, it felt like an organised community. The tents may have been broken, the water cold and the queues for the doctor endless. But the thousands of people living there (at its height more than 20,000) had turned what was an empty muddy field into the beginnings of a village. I bought my morning coffee from a Syrian man for one euro. My lunch from another who’d just set up a mini falafel stall. If I’d stayed longer I could’ve visited the local hairdresser for five euros.
But this week after the Greek government ramped up its efforts to remove people from Idomeni, that infrastructure was torn apart.
Seven hundred police officers were sent into the area in an operation that’s set to continue for a week. So far around 2,000 people have left peacefully. Roughly 8,000 remain.
According to Greece the refugees have to move for a number of reasons. They have no legal right to be there – the land is private; they are blocking the train tracks costing freight companies thousands of euros; the conditions are dire; but most importantly they say, they must leave for their own good. At Idomeni, they are not legally protected and can’t be formally registered unless they stay at the official camps. It’s logical.
But for many of the refugees remaining, logic went out of the window two months ago when Europe closed its borders, essentially washing it’s hands of the biggest refugee crisis it’s seen since World War 2. Last year one million refugees fled war, risked their lives crossing stormy seas, spent their entire life savings just to reach a safe place only to discover that Europe did not want know.
Now their biggest fear is if they leave the Macedonian border at idomeni, they will be forgotten. Their fight for safe passage will not be heard and it will be all too easy for the world to pretend that they didn’t exist.
Mustafa, from Aleppo, is documenting the arrival of the army on his Facebook page, refugees.tv. He says he will stay for 10 years if that’s what it takes – despite the squalid conditions. He is determined to stay put.
More than 50,000 refugees are now stuck in Greece. In camps across the country, where despite the Greek government doing its best to accommodate people, there are rising tensions. Fights every night over phone chargers, over meals that include chicken or any meat all. There have been reports of sexual abuse. So, many – fearful of the unknown – choose to stay at idomeni thinking at least they’re close to the border, should anything change.
When we left Idomeni people were packing up, not to leave for Athens but to try once again to get through the border with the help of smugglers. Many had tried a handful of times but were always unsuccessful.
‘We cant compete with the people smugglers.
They sell hope’
The government spokesman says the smugglers are the biggest problem. “We can’t compete with them. They sell hope.”
One of my new Syrian friends was lucky enough to make it to Northern Europe. She made it to Sweden, where her brother was already living.
She’s just sent me a photo of her old tent at Idomeni, bulldozed by Greek police. Her old home. Her home that became my home when I stayed there, where her mother made me rice and aubergines. Where we chatted to the neighbour whose baby was scarred by Isis, where we drank tea, played with the children and sheltered from the rain..
“Does it make you feel sad?” I ask.
“Yes..” She says. “Because it’s the end of people’s dreams.”
“What’s is the dream?”
“For the borders to open” she says.
Until they do, or until Europe can come up with a better solution than the current deal with Turkey that has managed to resettle a measly 177 Syrians into the EU since March, I see little hope. The deal doesn’t even apply to the 50,000 refugees left stranded in camps across Greece – a country in its sixth year of financial crisis, struggling to look after its own people.
I’m reminded of a comment by Lord Dubs, who came to Britain on the Kindertransport for Jewish children fleeing the Nazis before World War 2.
When asked about Europe’s response to the current refugee crisis, he replied:
“Those of us who believe in humanitarian values and traditions must speak out. We’re a modern advanced continent. This shouldn’t happen”.
This article was originally published HERE at Little Atoms.