Along migrant route to Europe, makeshift order emerges

2015-09-28 18:20
Migrants sleep aboard a bus as they arrive at the northern Greek village of Idomeni due to cross to southern Macedonia. (Giannis Papanikos, AP)

Migrants sleep aboard a bus as they arrive at the northern Greek village of Idomeni due to cross to southern Macedonia. (Giannis Papanikos, AP)

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Idomeni, Greece/Gevgelija, Macedonia - Nadine Cornier is at a loss for words. Surveying the train tracks leading to Macedonia from the tiny Greek village of Idomeni, blue UNHCR vest on, she keeps a calm face as hundreds of people squat in the sun forming a loose line toward the border.

Small groups are ushered through by Greek police, replaced at the back of the line by new arrivals disembarking from buses and trudging toward the dirt pitch.

After convincing Idomeni's mayor to allow some tents, Cornier, a senior protection officer, hopes that soon people will be able to wait the hours that it takes to reach the front of the line in the shade.

"People will not stay here," she explains. "But having the tents will allow a bit of dignity to an international... well...," she pauses. "It's just hard to believe that this is happening in 2015."

Thousands of people - by Cornier's count, between 5 000 and 6 000 - arrive at this border every day from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Ghana, Eritrea, Iran and beyond after arduous journeys they embarked on in hopes of a better life in Europe.

Greek police say about 4 000 people cross the border daily, Macedonian police say it's closer to 6 500 every 24 hours. By any count, Greece is one of the first landing points for migrants and refugees, and this crossing into Macedonia has become an important step along the way.

Many have crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey to a Greek island. Islands like Lesbos are overwhelmed and it can takes days to be registered by the authorities and to secure a €50 - €60  spot on a ferry.

Buses began making the trip to Idomeni from Athens - for approximately €60. Once refugees and migrants are registered in Greece, they can travel freely. The shiny tour buses that arrive constantly dwarf Idomeni's dirt roads.

Mohammad Javadi, 16, made such a trip from Iran in two weeks. He is rushing, because he says he heard the borders will close soon. At the train station at Idomeni, Javadi receives a roll and water from Greek and German volunteers who have set up a station to disburse donations.

In the group he arrived with on the bus, he is finally allowed through by Greek police, at the signal of the Macedonians who say they can accept more people at 20-minute intervals. With the exception of some people who try to jump into a group that's closer to the front - sparking heated, and often desperate, debates - the system seems to work.

Just weeks ago, the Macedonian police were documented brutally beating people who tried to cross the border. On Monday, watchdog organisation Human Rights Watch lambasted an epidemic of violent abuse by the Macedonian police, including beatings and maltreatment.


But Cornier says that the situation has improved since the grouping system reduced panic from both police and migrants, and refugees from Syria who crossed the border tell dpa in Gevgelija that they were not mistreated.

One of them, 23-year-old engineering student named Anas K, whose family is still in Damascus, speaks from a train in the Gevgelija station on his way to the Serbian border.

The train, packed to the gills with families crammed in the aisles, came from a camp in Macedonian territory that people walk to once they're allowed through at Idomeni. They pay €25 for the trip, to the consternation of Macedonian taxi drivers gathered near the camp entrance offering to drive a car of 4-5 people for between €100 - €120.

By the late afternoon, the tents in Idomeni open as thunder cracks through the sky. Dozens of toilets and newly-installed water faucets are in operation, even as construction workers still nail the last riggings in the tents.

The repose is a clear relief for the Hasan family, travelling together from Hama, Syria. Fahd, a 50-year-old aviation engineer, says he is trying to get to Austria where his eldest son arrived a month ago. His wife, Alam Al Aldin, daughter, and 13-year told son Faten are travelling with him. The latter is carrying a violin.

"I didn't want to leave, but it was terrible," Fahd's daughter, 20-year-old Mahasan says. In Syria, Mahasen studied English. She hopes to continue her studies and join a basketball team. "Our future was missing, we didn't have a future. We didn't have a life!"

"We didn't have anything," says Qais A, 25, nodding in agreement, "it was just dying and killing. I don't want to die now".

Qais wants to go the Netherlands, or Germany. "The people there, they don't see you as an Arab," he explains. "They don't see you as a Syrian. You are just a human being."

Read more on:    hrw  |  syria  |  greece  |  macedonia  |  migrants

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