Sent by SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL for a mission designed to assess refugees’ needs in the Balkans, Yara Burka, Head of Mission, and Guillaume Crocq, water, sanitation and hygiene programme manager, detail the undignified conditions of refugees transiting through Greece and Macedonia.
Migrant flows are high early this year (approximately 2000 people per day), even if winter weather conditions tend to slow down and discourage some people from gaining Europe. “The sea is rough and merciless,” says Guillaume.
“Am I a human being?”
Since late November, according to other European countries’ decisions, Macedonian authorities have restricted access across their border from Greece in the country’s south. Only Afghan, Syrian and Iraqi citizens on their way to Europe, were allowed through for only 72 hours.
Refugees of other nationalities are trying every day to cross the border, braving the cold and hazards on the road. Those who get caught are sent back to Greece or placed in retention centres. “Macedonia is just a transit route, for those who manage to get in, says Yara. Refugees are trying to get to Germany, Sweden or the Netherlands.” Yara remembers two encounters, one with a Pakistani family man: “He showed me a picture of a dog crossing the border and he told me: ‘You see, he can pass and I cannot.’ It’s hard to hear a forty year-old man with a stable job and a family ask you why if he’s fleeing a war zone, you’re not entitled to be treated as a human being. His words ‘Am I a human being?’ still sound in my head.” He remembers another encounter with an Iranian who didn’t understand why Afghans, Syrians and Iraqis could go through and not him. He comes from a situation of persecution in his country that led him to flee. He fears that grading crises does not encourage considering individual cases.
Signs of solidarity with refugees on the street
Idomeni camp, in northern Greece, on the border with Macedonia, where some 2000 people are transiting every day, was evacuated on 9 December 2015 by Greek authorities. They redirected refugees of other nationalities not admitted by Macedonian authorities toward Athens, namely in the Eleonas and Elliniko camps. In the former, some 150 to 400 people are stationed there. Among these families are people from Iran, Pakistan, Morocco, Somalia, Lebanon and Eritrea. But many end up on the streets of Athens, on Victoria square, where refugees can receive aid from NGOs as well as the population. “There is an important wave of solidarity from local Greek populations confronted with the ongoing crisis in the country, says Yara. People are giving food to the refugees, and bonds are being made little by little. Some people are even learning a few words to be able to communicate with the refugees.”
Idomeni camp is on a motorway rest area where NGOs distribute items to refugees. “The needs are globally covered by authorities, NGOs, the UN and individual volunteers, but there are still gaps,” Yara observes, thinking mostly about coordinated efforts between actors. “There are many Greek volunteers, but they are exhausted and don’t really take to NGOs interference,” adds Guillaume. Some refugees allowed to enter Macedonia receive the same things in Idomeni camp and in Gevgelija, on the Macedonian side of the border. Paradoxically, other people receive nothing.
Kits to ensure minimal dignity
“Past the Greece-Macedonia border, refugees arrive in Gevgelija camp, where they can eat, drink, find an internet connection…” says Yara. SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL is present in the camp and has built five latrines while waiting for more durable solutions and is organising cleaning activities.
After the long 180 km trail that will lead them to Serbia, Tabanovce camp is the next stop. It encounters the same problems as the other camps, notably the lack of latrines, which favours open air defecation. With funding, SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL would like to build temporary latrines to address the emergency of this deplorable situation and to anticipate a potential total closure of borders. With infrastructure designed for transit, such conditions would lead to a situation as catastrophic as observed in Calais.