Photo by Louise Orton
Hundreds of people fleeing from stun grenades as they are battered by rubber bullets and blinded with teargas, while riot police look on from behind a barbed wire fence. This was the scene at Idomeni in northern Greece on Sunday, after an estimated 500 refugees tried to breach the Macedonian border.
Medical aid organisations yesterday reported that it had treated 300 people, including 200 suffering from respiratory problems caused by tear gas, as well as rubber bullet wounds. Around 30 children, aged between five and 15 years old, required care and at least 10 people said that they had been beaten by the Macedonian police.
This most recent occasion of police violence is just the latest event in a string of attacks against migrants and refugees who have become stuck in the Idomeni camp. Thousands of people have been barred from crossing the border into Macedonia and are now living in filthy tents where diseases such as scabies and respiratory infections are rife.
Vulnerable people, such as Leyla an Iranian woman who is six months pregnant, say they have been enduring threats and violence from Macedonian police for weeks. She recounted walking in the dark for eight hours to reach the Greece-Macedonia border with her family just weeks ago.
"We came across a group of men in clothes that looked like uniforms," she said. "They began to beat my father and brother with truncheons. I tried to protect them but the men pushed me to the ground. I fell and hit my belly." Leyla was sent back to the sodden tent she had left behind in Idomeni, despite suffering terrible pains and worrying about the health of her unborn child.
Daniel Youkee, a volunteer for a health charity, who is currently providing healthcare in Idomeni, recalled treating a Syrian man beaten by Macedonian border guards last month. "It was what some call a professional beating, likely with truncheons," he said. "He had been hit in places that cause maximum pain, soft tissue areas such as the back of the thighs or buttocks, but that will not break any bones."
One young man examined by medics at a Doctors of the World clinic broke down in tears while recounting how he was attacked by 12 police officers as he and other migrants as they tried to cross the Macedonian border. It's not known which country the police were from. "We cowered in a corner and they kept beating us," he said. "They want to kill us, they have beaten us," he said. "They treat us like animals."
Whether in Greece, France or the Balkans, migrants face police brutality at every stage of their journey into Europe.
In Calais, in northern France, a makeshift camp known as the 'Jungle' has become a site of squalor, misery and fear. According to a recent study by the Refugee Rights Data Project, almost 75% of migrants surveyed there have experienced police brutality in the form of verbal abuse, exposure to tear gas, physical and in some cases even sexual violence.
Almost 5,000 people are currently living in the Jungle camp, including over 650 children. Ahmed is a 16-year-old boy from Libya who told Doctors of the World about the police abuse he suffered last year. Two days after arriving in the Jungle, Ahmed said he was apprehended by four police officers while he was fetching water from a tap. One asked him where he came from but before he could respond, two officers knocked him to the ground, blinded him with pepper spray and beat his legs and feet. A friend then took Ahmed to a Doctors of the World clinic so that his injuries could be treated. "I'm afraid every time a police van goes by," he told aid workers. "They shout curse words while beating us."
Police violence in camps is fast becoming a part of everyday life for refugees, whether in France, Greece or the Balkans. According to human rights group Amnesty International, women and girls making the journey from Turkey to the Balkans are now particularly at risk of police harassment. Almost 60% of refugees arriving in Greece so far this year have been women and children.
For vulnerable people like Leyla and Ahmed the road ahead is fraught with danger, and until refugees are provided with safe passage across borders the threat of violence or abuse will shadow them at every turn.