The only thing certain about the refugee crisis in Idomeni, Greece is you never know what is going to happen next. Idomeni was the first official land border crossing for Afghani, Iraqi and Syrian refugees traveling from the Greek islands to Northern Europe. And after two months of working in Idomeni everyday (bar one) I thought I understood the situation. Nothing however prepared me for the crisis that unfolded next.
The end of February started off quiet. Bad weather on the islands and open borders meant that refugees passed quickly through camp and the once busy gas station was nearly empty. However, by the beginning of March the situation had changed dramatically.
As soon as the waves decreased people who had been waiting in Turkey began to arrive on the islands. Simultaneously the number of people per day allowed to cross the border slowed and new restrictions came into effected.
Step by step the gates of 'Fortress Europe' closed.
At first everyone from Afghanistan was stopped. Suddenly they were no longer considered in danger or in need of European asylum. In reality the growth of the Taliban in Afghanistan and suppressive politics means thousands of people are being forced to flea in order to survive. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Afghanis had arrived to Greece during the first weeks of February in the hope of reaching Northern Europe. However, without pre-warning the border closed to them and they became stuck in Greece.
Next anyone without a passport was denied permission to cross. There are many thousands of people who made the journey without a passport. This could be for a number of reasons: documents had expired and couldn't be renewed because of little or no official government in war-torn regions: children were born during the war or whilst traveling and not documented: documents lost when boats capsized in the Aegean Sea: documents were issued by unrecognized authorities (ISIS): family books (official Syrian documents) were not recognized by Macedonian authorities: destroyed when homes were bombed. Now they too were stuck in Greece.
The next requirement was a short stay in Turkey. Those who had passports but had a Turkish stamp in their passport for more than 30 days were prevent from travelling on. Turkey has been recognized by the European Commission as a 'Third-Safe Country'. Essentially, those who had stayed over a month in Turkey were not seen as in need of protection and asylum in Europe as they could have applied for asylum in Turkey (see http://www.unhcr.org/56f3ec5a9.pdf). They too were told they couldn't continue in their travels and became stuck in Greece.
Macedonian authorities also started checking phones. Anyone with a photo that could have associated them with fighting was stopped at the border. Many people have images on their phones of fighters or weapons, as it had just become a part of daily life for many. However, now this could mean that they were considered a danger to Europe and they too became stuck in Greece.
Finally on the 8th March the 10foot metal gates closed for all.
Suddenly thousands of people who had arrived to Greece with the aim of travelling to Europe to seek refugee were stuck. According to the UNHCR when the border closed 50,000 people were trapped in Greece. They suddenly had nowhere to go. Many people set up camp in the ferry port, some moved into the city of Athens and ended up sleeping outside in Victoria Square, many were taken directly to military camps, and many found their way to Idomeni. Fuelled by the hope that this was only a temporary closure, people turned up in Idomeni to wait for the border to open.
For weeks after the border shut people continued to arrive at the border. Private buses were independently organized from the ports, Athens and Thessaloniki. However, about 20km away from the border, at the infamous EKO gas station turned camp, the police stopped the buses. From this point everyone was forced to walk.
Walking on the edge of the main highway connecting Greece to the rest of Europe, traffic streaming past, thousands continued their journey north. Carrying everything they owned, with young children on shoulders and babies on backs, people were determined to get to the border in order to wait.
I stopped one family to ask why they were still moving North when the border was closed, 'Because maybe on the 1st April it will open' I was told by Fahtima, a young Syrian lady with her 2 young boys and husband. I pushed further asking what if this was not true, 'But where else can we go?' was the response I received. For many people there was no option, and being at the border provided hope.
By the middle of March over 14,000 people were in Idomeni waiting. However, the official camp can accommodate 1500 people. This means enough toilets, hygiene facilities, food and shelter for just over 10% of the population. Small camping tents popped up, covered the fields and spread down the train tracks to the station. MSF, Aid Delivery Mission and the Red Cross provided emergency food, aiming to provide a minimum of 28,000 meals a day. However, we were not prepared to deal with the influx of people and many were hungry, cold and without shelter.
Families, groups and individuals endured these conditions and set up camp to wait for the border to open. Unaware that this would become their home for the next 3 months as the waiting game commenced.