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Migrant crisis

Inside today's Dachau

24 May May 2016 1654 24 May 2016
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12 thousand people, of which 40% are children, have been stuck for over two months at the border between Greece and Macedonia. This is the story of a journey into the most serious humanitarian crisis Europe has faced since the Balkan wars.

The thousands of weather-worn camping tents are shining in the spring sun, after months of wind and rain. The are washing lines stretched out between one camp and another, where clothes have been put out to dry after the latest storm, create a sort of gymkana: complicated and dense. "Hello my friend" - the catchphrase used by the youngsters you meet on the muddy pathways and the children that grab you by the hand, and drag you to play with them.

Idomeni is not what you would expect. Seeing it from above, on a nice day, it looks like an expanse of confetti on a green lawn.

Until a few months ago, these were plowed fields like any others, just a few metres away from the railway and the barbed wire that marks the forbidden border with Macedonia. But since this 21st February, they have been transformed into the closure of the borders with Europe, with a refugee camp that the Greek interior minister has called "the Dachau of the living".

12, 000 people, of which 40% are children, have been blocked here for 2 months. They are forced to sleep under the rain, wind, and sun that is already scorching now, in April.

Other thousands of families have stopped in the two service stations close to Polycastro, a town of 12,000 inhabitants just 20 minutes away from Idomeni. For fear of checks, many private buses left people at the entrance of the town, saying that the border was just around the corner, when in truth it was over 25km away. Besides the camp in Idomeni, camped out on the tarmac close to the petrol distributors are over 3, 500 other people - most are families with small children, and many are sick.

"This was only a transit point through which roughly 1000 people used to pass through daily, headed towards Northern Europe," said Emmanuel Massart, the coordinator of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), which has been present here in Idomeni since last November. "With the closure of the border, the number has risen to 12,000 in a few days, until a few weeks ago it reached a peak, at 15,000". 80% of the people stuck here come from Syria and Iraq.

However there are no official statistics on Idomeni. According to the UNHCR, there are now 10,000 people in the camp. According to some of the volunteers, there are less. However MSF is convinced of its own number of 15,000. With a staff comprising of over 200 people and an additional 90 operators who are responsible for cleaning the camp, MSF is the largest and most important humanitarian presence in the camp. "We have 20 doctors and 20 nurses, as well as 2 surgeries that are open 24 hours a day. One of the two is entirely for women, many of whom require postnatal assistance, as well as support for the violence inflicted on them during their journeys here. It is often the case that their rapists are also their traffickers," continues Massart, "so we have to count numbers precisely in order to know how many resources we need. It's for this reason that we are so sure of our number." 12,000.

A veritable inundation of people, with just 250 chemical toilets and 70 showers between them. "We have managed negotiations with the local administration and landowners to lease the fields and install these services," says Massart. "Not all the farmers have accepted to lease out their fields however. This is the reason why we cannot install other toilets Even though many people have camped their tents on this land, we don't have the necessary permits to install more infrastructure."

It's only been 2 weeks since a group of refugees tried to cross the border, and were pushed back with rubber bullets and tear gas by the Macedonian police. A hell, in hell. The situation is still not considered critical from a security perspective: "Tensions are running high, and people are beginning to tire of having lenses constantly pointed at them," say Save the Children.

Notwithstanding my own camera, everyone replied to my greetings with a smile, and many stopped to talk, because anyone from the outside might have news.

"What are they saying outside? They're saying nothing to us here," asks Ibrahim, a Syrian man in his fifites sitting on a camp bed, in the shade of a dark sheet hung across a cluster of 5 tents. His is the encampment closest to the barbed wire that separates this last piece of Greek land from the Macedonian border. He invites me to enter his small camp and take a seat, after having scolded Ahmed - the smallest of his 5 children - for wanting to take possession of my camera. "We've been here for 2 months and 2 weeks." He tells me of the 2 weeks with a gravitas in his voice that indicates how heavy the weight of every passing day has become. One of his sons, just 17 years old, was able to leave just a few months before for Germany, and it is there that they are headed. Abdul, his eldest, was shot in the head by a Macedonian policeman's rubber bullet. Luckily, the wound is healing. "We can do nothing except wait," continues Ibrahim. Like many others here, he arrived with his family from Deir el-Zor, the city that has been under siege by IS militants since last summer, and where the latest massacre of civilians took place just this January. "IS have taken everything. Our house is not there anymore. We have nothing left." Whilst we speak, Mohammed pulls on his father's jumper and shouts something. "He wants a dog! He's asking if you have one?". I reply that I would also like a dog, but I live in a small apartment, and I wouldn't know where to put it. Ibrahim translates my reply, and Mohammed replies in the most natural of ways, with something that must be funny because his father bursts out laughing. "He is saying that we would know where to put a dog! Outside the tent....there's loads of space!". He remains in silence for a minute and then shakes his head. "If I had not invested everything in the journey to Europe, I would return to Syria. It would be better than staying here knowing nothing."

A sentence I heard repeated often in the camp, because, despite the inhumane conditions, the "not knowing" is the most upsetting thing of all. Everyone agrees on this.

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"The UNHCR should go from tent to tent and explain to these people what their rights are, what the alternatives are, and create the conditions necessary to have access to start the proceedings for requests for asylum," says Rose Lee, an independent volunteer who arrived in Idomeni a month ago. "Seeing people's lives suspended like this... They often ask me when they will re-open the border, and the most difficult thing is not having a reply. Hope is the only thing that remains to those who are here. How can I say that it won't open again?" UNHCR has confirmed that it does have plans to implement a program for mass registration, but there are still no specific dates set, and here dates and times are everything. The mud and the rain will soon give way to an impossible heat.

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On paper, for those in Idomeni there are 3 options: everyone can request asylum in Greece, for those with relatives abroad they can request family reunification, and the Syrians and Iraqis can request "relocation", which means moving to another EU Member State. However, in order to begin these procedures, it's necessary first to book an appointment with the office in Salonicco for a Skype interview. "It's an online procedure. Anyone can do it from any place," states Marco Bono, UNHCR chief of the region. Easy to say, but practically impossible to put into practice: "In Idomeni most do not have the possibility to access the internet. There are only two wifi networks in the camp, for 12,000 people!" explains Massart. One of the two wifi networks, by the way, is provided for and managed by a group of volunteers. To render the situation even more difficult, nobody in the office in Salonicco is replying to the Skype calls. Yamine, 24 years old, is an Italo-Algerian volunteer, arriving in Idomeni from Padova with the Over the Fortress campaign. Together with a group of young people from all over Europe, he manages the influx of people that give each other turns in front of 2 computers in an overcrowded tent, to try and place a Skype call and obtain an appointment.

Due to the emergency, with MSF we have done many things that are not usually within our realm of operations. In the beginning we were also distributing meals. We cannot also cover this information problem, and it's not our responsibility!

Emanuel Massart
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Last week, Rania Ali, a 20 year old economics student from Syria who is blocked in Idomeni, launched a petition on Change.org, asking to replace Skype with an alternative system, after having tried without success for 20 days in a row to book an appointment. The petition received over 80,000 signatures, but they need another 68,000 in order to reach the goal of 150,000 and try to change this absurd system. And Skype is not the only obstacle. The process for asylum requests is extremely long. It takes 2 months to have an appointment, and in order to reach Salonicco people need to organise their own transport. Most, however, have already spent everything they had, and cannot even afford transport to the offices. Finally, in order to obtain a response, it can take between 6 and 9 months. This is an unthinkably long time to survive here in Idomeni.

"There are a few set days and times in which calls can be placed," says Yamine. "The problem is that very often no one replies on the other end of the line. We have been here since this morning for example, and no one has replied to a single call. The lives of these people is literally balancing on this call."

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Esra, a 25 year old architecture student from Damascus, is in Idomeni with her parents and her cat. "I hid him in a baby sling! He's lost 5kg since we've arrived. We're all ill here. My mother has a hernia, and sleeping on the floor is terrible for her." She goes on to say, "Our tent was hit by the strong winds last night. I've asked for a new one at the UNHCR container, but they told me I would have to move into one of the government camps." In the north of Greece, the government has opened 10 new institutional camps, managed in collaboration with the UNHCR. Amongst these is Neakavala, just a few kilometres from Idomeni, which we tried to visit, but our efforts were in vain. "You can't go in. You need permission from Athens," says the soldier at the entrance. Videos and photographs are also prohibited.

A majority of these new camps do not respect even basic hygiene standards.

Emanuel Massart

"A majority of these new camps do not respect even basic hygiene standards," explains Emanuel Massart. "A number of people have returned here, because they did not even have guaranteed access to water there." Amongst the returnees was Marek, 37 years old, and a teacher in Homs. She's here with her husband, 2 children, sister-in-law, and 3 nephews. I meet her whilst I'm walking through the small village of Idomeni: a group of houses that until a few months ago had only a few hundred inhabitants. "In our bad luck we have been lucky," she explains. "An old woman has given us the use of her garage. She doesn't speak English, and I understand nothing of what she is saying, but she is helping us a lot. The Greeks are good people," she says. "It is the governments that are treating us like animals. My family and I were amongst those that helped the poor, and now...I can't even feed my son...I don't sleep at night, he can't eat the food of the camp anymore. For us fruit and vegetables cost too much, and I cannot cook anything." "I don't know how we will manage for Ramadan. I can't even pray, and praying makes me feel better, but in order to do so we need to be cleaned properly, and we don't have water." My instinct, as a lay non-Muslim, would be to say to her, "Pray anyway, if it makes you feel better Allah will understand." But then I remember the dialogue between the writer Jonathan Safran Foer and his grandma, a Holocaust survivor, who, after having been freed, despite the risk of dying of hunger, refused a piece of pork because it wasn't kosher. She explained that impossible decision by saying that "If nothing matters, then there is nothing to save." "We have lived 5 years of war, we lost all of our possessions in the sea and on our journey, and now we are here." I ask her if she would be willing to tell her story on video, but she refuses. "If you want, as soon as I can get connected, I can send you a Whatsapp message," intervenes Ala, the 16 year old niece of Marek. "After all, I have so much free time here..." I accept, but understand how difficult it must be to have access to the internet. However a few days later, when I'm already back in Italy, I receive an audio message.

It is a collective shock, that which is being experienced by the thousands of people faced by the closure of the border: "Look, 3 months ago I was here!" says Mohammed, a 25 year old Syrian nurse, showing me a photo in which he is smiling in a restaurant with his family. "Look how handsome, clean, and elegant I was. Now I'm here, in this filth...". Together with other 9 volunteers in the camp, he manages Solidaritea: an initiative launched by a group of German youth who distribute approximately 3000 litres of tea in the camp every day. "Helping out is saving me from going mad. By serving tea, I have made friends with people from all across Europe. The only sad thing is that sooner or later they will leave, whereas I will remain stuck here."

In the last few days, the number of people in the camp has diminished. About 2,000 refugees have been transferred to the government camps, but, according to a few volunteers, many are still trying a last desperate attempt to cross the border. "Knowing nothing makes people even more vulnerable to the promises of traffickers," says Imad Aoun, regional chief of Save the Children. "It makes me think that if there is no information, maybe there is no precise plan. After all, these are forgotten refugees, those that have found themselves stuff in the countries on the Balkan route just before the EU-Turkey deal." Rania, 22 years old, is here with her parents. She speaks English well, and she invites me into her tent. She tells me that in Damascus she studied economics, and she was headed to Sweden, to be reunited with her younger brother. Idomeni interrupted her journey and her life. "We were really not expecting the borders to be closed." We stop and talk for a long time, and during our goodbye, I tell her that I would pass by to see her the following day. She shakes her head, and tells me that she wouldn't be there anymore. "We're going." Rania and her family are amongst those that still have something left to invest, and have no intention of stopping and waiting. Asking her to stop and think about the dangers of the traffickers, and the violence of the Macedonian police is useless, perhaps almost cruel, because the alternative is to remain in an infernal limbo made of mud, scorching heat, and inhumane conditions. She confirms my thoughts with her parting words to me: "Better to die on the other side, than to die slowly here."

Photo Credits: Ottavia Spaggiari