The makeshift refugee camp at Idomeni, at the border of Greece and FYROM
Emma Spence, from Glasgow, Scotland, has been volunteering with the refugees in Greece for the past few months.
She’s currently in Idomeni, at the border between Greece and former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), where an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 refugees and migrants have been living in squalor for a number of weeks.
Last Tuesday, in defiance of the border being closed, approximately 2,000 refugees walked several kilometres from the makeshift camp in Idomeni in search of a gap in the border.
They did manage to enter FYROM, by crossing a river, only to be rounded up and returned to the camp.
Further to this, and following the EU/Turkey agreement reached on Friday, Emma writes:
The images cannot capture it: the desperation, the push, the fear, the unstoppable movement. Nor can they show the extent, the sheer number of people forming the swollen trail, marching themselves and dragging themselves for 10-15 kilometres over hills and through rivers toward the glimmer of hope that they could pass through an opening in the border fencing, and finally, after weeks of waiting, waiting, in the mud and the cold, move onwards.
The exodus from Idomeni camp, Greece, by the border to the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia, on Tuesday, March 14, is estimated to have involved around 2,000-plus people.
No words can capture it.
I was present, witnessing helplessly the people whose tents I have been trudging between for the recent past, now out in the open with their energy vibrating more powerful than anything I had ever seen, overwhelmed by both their strength and by fear at the knowledge of their vulnerability.
Nature can be rough but does not discriminate; border police can be rough, and they do.
Most people had little idea where they were going. They were following the others, traipsing after a tenuous dream. The group was not formed of the young and the able. It comprised everyone. From the fittest who strode on with a sense of elation – finally, movement! – to those leading children, carrying children, the pregnant women, the elderly, the disabled, everyone, they pushed on through mud trails in rain ruined shoes.
Their mission was, in the end, futile.
All who made it through were returned to Greece. Their departure was no surprise to the Greek police, whose buses I saw upon several instances driving past the groups walking, walking, and, on the other side, awaited the Macedonian military.
This group of people did not arrive in Europe to hike through hills to find gaps in fences. They arrived, in pursuit of safety for their lives and those of their families, to follow a route which has become recognised and concretised through the installation of reception and registration centres, which with no warning and no dissemination of information was halted.
Idomeni has therefore now become the interminable waiting place for well around 12,000 people. The camp was designed for a tiny proportion of this number. Last week, estimates peaked at between 14,000 to 15,000; following trickling departures of buses to Athens, the spreading of people to surrounding areas, both to official military-run camps or to unofficial sites at gas stations or hotel car parks, alongside the chaos of the Macedonian flight, the numbers appear to have fallen, but it is almost impossible to call.
The ‘camp’ is a mud-filled, trash-filled, over-filled spread eagle of families crammed into summer-intended tents. The day time is a bustle of queues, of splashing through mud-lakes, of children falling out of tents and playing in ditches, of over-crowded distributions, of acrid camp-fires of firewood, broken pallets, branches, paper, dirty clothes, discarded packaging, plastic, and rubble; people walking, talking, running, shouting, over one another: there is nothing to do, other than stand outside, sit in a tent, build a fire, or wait. Wait for a sandwich, wait for a blanket, wait exhaustedly for a future.
The night time is a retreat to huddle inside under grey blankets, the billowing smoke of remaining fires hanging languidly over tent-tops, the constant coughs, splutters, cries of infants.
There is no information. Nobody knows. Everyone asks: when can we go? When can we go? We can’t live here. We can’t stay here.
Over one week ago, after the first heavy rains, I stood in Idomeni amongst the fabric sprawl that tumbles across fields, skirts the edges of rubb halls, skirts the wire fences which form distribution queues, backs into portable toilets, halves roadways, lines the railtracks, rolls back and back a ten-minute walk to the disused train station where abandoned trash-filled houses sit families in their corners and further back again as the tracks curve into the woods and tree branches are the props for impromptu shelters, swathes of rainbow splashes across bog-like grass divided by newly formed mud-lakes, and the thought came to me: these people have fled here across the sea in rubber dinghies, before which they fled war and fear, and now, here, under our noses, arriving to ‘safety’, they are faced with conditions worth fleeing – except, they have nowhere to go, no way to get there.
Two days ago, after a full week of heavy rain, their tents swimming in water and swimming in trash, it no longer mattered whether they had nowhere to go or no way to go there. They were going to walk there anyway.
I am only an individual. My view is small, biased, skewed, subjective. Words tend to lean towards a form of melodrama. However, at Idomeni, these categories are being surpassed, destroyed.
When thousands of exhausted people attempt to cross a churning, fast-flowing river, the current pushing against their tired legs as their tired arms hold their children above their heads, and they do this because they have been weeping for days for their children’s safety in damp, cold, dirty tents, straightforward ‘reality’ has mutated into something other.
The point is: this is not cinematic, this is not novelistic, this is not melodrama. This is the actual circumstance of each person’s life. And I would defy anyone to find me an individual who could stand before this mess, and with their own small, biased, skewed, subjective view, fail to find these living conditions anything other than horrendous.
One’s small, biased, skewed, subjective view could go further, and get mired in the politics of borders.
The last days have witnessed many extremely questionable decisions being taken as to the future of the apparently defunct Balkan route, and the extent of return agreements between the EU and Turkey.
These decisions form the entirety of people’s lives, and the dignity and security therein. Each person is a person, not a piece of currency, not the leverage of deal-makers. Or, as we are now being forced to consider: each person should be a person.
This move to the conditional indicates the dire level to which the politics of this situation have sunk. Aside from this political ‘bigger picture’, in the very concrete here and now, Idomeni is beyond questionable, unquestionable, there is no question. It is a disaster-site. It is squalor. The people have been abandoned as non-people, as inanimate bit-parts of a system that is now to be dismantled and disposed.
The destruction of this system is so essential that well beyond 10,000 people can be left to rot in the mud, not to mention the tens of thousands stranded across the rest of Greece.
Some aspects of this crisis are immersed in complications. Some aspects are so utterly simple, are the very basics of human safety and respect. A canvas roof to cover a child’s head should not be a preferential situation, it is the absolute minimum.
If Europe can throw billions at ‘protecting its borders’ but cannot hand over a few thousand to erect some liveable tents, this is a Europe in which actual human lives have ceased to matter.
There is no way to emphasise it enough to make it real. There are no words. A generalised description ignores the particularity of each individual, specific anecdotes exclude the masses.
Today I met, homeless, bedless, floorless: an eight-month pregnant woman with fever; seven adults sharing a three-person tent; a family of five with three infants, the mother, four-months pregnant, whose tent no longer has a door; a boy of ten or eleven I met two weeks ago who described to me being carted back from Macedonia in the back of a green truck packed with ‘hundreds’ of people; three different women whose husbands are in Germany, who had gone ahead to make homes for their families, from whom they are now stranded.
There follows a semi-constant stream of “hello-hello, how are you” and children who parrot “I love you, I love you, how are you, I am fine”; and everywhere is another story, everyone is another real individual, whose life has been reduced to the damp interior of a stale smelling tent and sliding and sticking through the mud to reach a rank smelling portaloo.
What people are being subjected to is not natural. It is not the natural ‘way of things’ that people have to put on fake lifejackets to travel petrified across the sea in the dark for thousands of euros.
I crossed the same route safely for twenty five. And it’s not the natural ‘way of things’ that people wait cramped for three or four weeks in a thin tent in a field with no information.
That only becomes the way of things when people are no longer considered as people. This backlog of tens of thousands in Greece created by the border closures imposed further down the line has created a crisis situation, but I cannot for a second believe that Europe does not have the resources or capacity to act.
So, every decision is political; permanent infrastructure is resisted because the creation of a permanent camp is not to be encouraged. Thus, once again, the decision-making process as to how people are to be treated and the value of their safety is relocated once again from the human level to a logistical level of keeping people out, whatever it takes, so that we can look the other way calmly, decide that the problem is now elsewhere, the pain is now elsewhere, the pain no longer exists.
Except: there are thousands of children sleeping in the cold, the damp, in their dirty clothes, in a thin tent in stagnant mud tonight, and it’s nowhere else but right here.