Originally posted March 11, 2016
Idomeni, Greece by Dr. Bill Dienst
The border at the village of Idomeni between Greece and Macedonia was sealed with a barbwire fence about 4 weeks ago. Meanwhile, the refugee population has exploded exponentially. A week ago, there were about 5 thousand people living in tents. Today there are over 15 thousand refugees officially; but some estimates put the number at over 20 thousand lost souls aspiring for a better future free from poverty and war. The future is totally uncertain for these people at this point.
Three days ago, about 500 refugees were allowed to cross into the Republic of Macedonia on their way to Serbia, Slovenia, Austria and ultimately Germany or other locations in Northern Europe. This number of people allowed passage is markedly diminished from the thousands that were crossing daily before. Today, that number is zero. On March 8th, the border was completely sealed for refugees. The EU is putting pressure on Turkey to stem the flow of refugees crossing into the Greek Islands. So now refugees are being stranded in both Turkey and Greece.
According to sources we interviewed here in Idomeni, members of the Greek Army and Police arrived 3 days ago and blocked the highway heading North to the Macedonian border. Afghans were forced out of the area back to Athens and other unknown destinations.
Based on a walk through visit of the Idomeni camps yesterday, we are seeing that the majority of refugees remaining are now Syrians, with a minority from other ethnicities. Current UNHCR reports are that about 60% of the refugees remaining in Idomeni are Syrians, the remaining 40% are split among other ethnicities: Iraqis, Iranians, Pakistanis, Afghans, Moroccans, etc. 63% of the current population are women and children.
According to Spanish journalist Juan Naza who works for a Russian news agency and who has been in the Idomeni area for 10 days, there is a general lack of information among the refugees. Some have been stranded here for over 3 weeks and the majority don’t know what to believe or what to do. Some have the ability to search the internet, but many don’t even know how to go about consulting the UN about how to proceed.
Medecins San Frontiere has erected 8 giant tents that shelter about 250 refugees each. UNHCR is deploying additional tents for families, and about half the remaining refugees are in individual tents scattered haphazardly in different makeshift zones now designated as Areas A, B, C, D and E. The tents generally do not have fly tents, so the rain soaks through. It has been cold and raining very hard for the past few days and so everyone is getting thoroughly muddy and drenched. Many people don’t have tents at all. The railway station at Idomeni is no longer functioning. Trains are being bypassed around Idomeni. Its platform, relatively dry ground, has become completely covered with tents and temporary shelters. The snack bars are still functioning, currently chock full of people trying to stay dry.
UNHCR and MSF have erected feeding tents. People cue for over an hour to receive a sandwich, an orange and water. For many this is the only meal that they receive for the day. Some other volunteer organizations are providing additional hot meals as well. Limitations in food supply are being burdened by rapid expansion in demand, and the fact that MSF and UNHCR are facing multiple refugee crises around the world. Some, like in Sudan, are bigger than here. The EU is also trying to provide additional funds, but that demands a political process between the Left and the Right. In Greece, the far-right party are saying things like: “All of Greece will become like Idomeni if we allow this to go on.”
MSF has erected portable toilets and showers, but the showers only run cold water, so many people are going without bathing, and hygiene is suffering. A large portion of the population are suffering from upper respiratory infections.
The Greek government has also deployed security police, but they too are feeling overwhelmed, with about 40-50 officers for 20 thousand refugees.
There are now moves by the Greek government to set up reception centers along the lines of what we witnessed in Idomeni. (See previous article by Kirsten Senturia, “A day in the Life of a Refugee in Moria Camp.” ) The advantage of these reception centers, often placed on military bases, is that there is more order, and some hygiene measures can be better implemented, but at a cost of personal autonomy for the refugees. But many of these reception centers are located in the middle of nowhere. Some refugees are grudgingly returning to Athens, at a cost of 35 Euros each for bus tickets.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is now saying that it is a mistake to close the Balkan route to Northern Europe. But solutions to this humanitarian crisis remain murky.