Last summer the refugee crisis dominated the media, I read article after article describing the conditions and the difficulties that refugees were facing in their attempt to escape war and search for the opportunity of a better life. As I sat in my flat in Istanbul reading the stories of refugees - I decided it was time to do something.
I decided to take an intermission year from my studies as a Geography/ International Development student in the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex and in the middle of December last year I arrived in Idomeni, Greece with very little knowledge. Idomeni, located on the Greek-Macedonia border is the first official border crossing for refugees arriving on the islands of Greece. This is the beginning of the so called Balkan Route, the point in which refugees begin their journey up to Austria, Germany or other Western European countries. In the three months that I have been here I have seen many changes on the border and in the camp.
When I arrived in December, one week after Idomeni was violently evicted, the whole camp was in shut down. Heated tents sat empty, doctors' offices weren't accessible and refugees were often stuck on freezing buses: sometimes for up to 9 hours. The long waits were mostly caused by temporary closures of the border. Once people were finally let off their buses the Greek police rushed them down towards the border. In the 100m walk food, blankets, hats, gloves and jackets were quickly handed over and then they were gone. The camp remained in this state for a number of weeks, people passing continuously throughout the day and night.
Around 20km away from the border lies the infamous Eko gas station. Here buses would wait, sometimes for up to 48 hours. A date that remains in my mind is the 3rd January. Temperatures were low, wind was high and the snow was coming in sideways. Seventy buses (about 4000 people) were haphazardly parked in the gas station parking lot and people swarmed around them confused and unable to remain warm. At one point I came across a small family with a one month-old baby huddled up in UNHCR blankets. The mother turned to me, pointed at her baby and said, 'Doctor'. Her face was a cry for help - but there was no doctor, no support.
When camp finally reopened people were allowed into the warm tents and humanity was slightly restored. However, only 1200 people can be at camp so the situation at the Eko gas station remained and people were still forced to wait for days. A collective kitchen (aiddeliverymission.org) began operating down at the gas station, providing often the only warm nutritious meal. It was hard to reach everyone and the most vulnerable (pregnant women, the sick, disabled) would often be missed. Smugglers seeing an opportunity to make money started to operate in the gas station, asking people to pay for transit to the camp. Bus drivers also got in on the game and would demand 30 Euros per person for the bus to skip the queue. Luckily most people from here would be able to continue their journey. There are however the 'illegal' refugees who are forbidden to cross the border.
If you're not from Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq (SIA) you become illegal in the eyes of Europe. This has led to people trying to find alternative routes. Smugglers ask for extortionate prices to get people across Macedonia. One Iranian man I talked to paid $800 only to be caught by the Macedonian army 3km across the border. He was lucky although he was sent back, no beating had occurred at the hands of the army or police. Many of the non SIA people who try to cross illegally are reporting they are subject to excessive violence. Over the last couple of months I have seen multiple broken legs, dislocated shoulders, purple eyes and bloody ears or noses, all of which I have been told come from the Macedonian army or police (for more information see this report by the Human Rights Watch). But people don't stop trying. This is, in their eyes their 'only chance' to find a better life.
There is so much to describe of the situation at Idomeni, that I have only given a small overview. Furthermore things are changing all the time, refugees are at the mercy of big EU decisions. What do we say to refugees when they ask 'Germany, Austria good?', I don't know. Maybe, you will get all the way through, find asylum and a new life and maybe you will be sent all the way back again. But often you won't find hospitality. Reports of Denmark taking jewellery, Neo-Nazi Germans stopping buses, months waiting for registration, accusations of false identity and deportation of minors in the UK are possibly welcomes awaiting refugee. Furthermore one slip up in your papers could result in a return ticket to a place that is now too destroyed to be called a home.
Who knows what will come next, but it doesn't look so positive at the moment. From my experience I would plead with people first and foremost - please do not forget refugees are also humans.