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From Lesbos to Idomeni, everyday life for refugees oscillates between solidarity and barbed wire

Translated Wednesday 16 March 2016, by Philippa Griffin

Without a substantial emergency response from other EU nations, the Greek government can expect to shoulder alone the burden of more than 70,000 exiled refugees between now and the end of March. From the Greek island of Lesbos to the Macedonian border, we have followed their journey.

She looks us straight in the eye, her hands resting on her swollen stomach. Hiba has lived here in the Idomeni camp on the Greek-Macedonian border for ten days, like so many thousands of refugees before her. Her green igloo-shaped tent sits against the large white tent of the International Organisation for Migration. It is here that one finds the final transit zone before the passage into the Republic of Macedonia, where the flow of refugees is drip-like in pace. “I am eight and a half months pregnant”, explains this Syrian woman, barely older than a teenager. “Yesterday, they told me that I must wait my turn like everyone else, that I had no certificate to prove my pregnancy. But I could give birth any moment now.” Hiba left Damas less than one month ago and until now has stayed in Turkish camps. She crossed the Aegean Sea from Izmir on board a flimsy craft full to bursting with 300 fellow refugees. It was from Lesbos, the Greek island located scarcely 10km from Turkey, that Hiba, like thousands of her fellow citizens fleeing war and poverty, began her journey into the European Union; an Odyssey that for a week now has ground to a halt in the landscapes of northern Greece, thanks to the blind selfishness of certain EU leaders.

Poppies and broom bloom on Lesbos. In the east of the island, however, the red and yellow of spring flowers are not the only colours to adorn the Aegean cost. The bright orange of thousands of life jackets also cloak the landscape, bearing witness to the unceasing flux of men and women who have come to seek refuge in Europe. The thousands of Euros provided to Turkey have changed nothing, and the recent deployment of NATO in the Aegean Sea has not altered much more. This last week, over 1,800 people have arrived every day on Lesbos; close to 130,000 since the start of the year, of which 36% were children. In this same period, 400 lost their lives to the sea before reaching dry land.

On the morning of 3rd March, at the entrance to Moria camp, about thirty refugees arrived in a bus. Straight after its departure, another took its place, depositing a further fifty refugees at the camp. Their clothes were still damp and their faces haggard. Some of them staggered as they took their first steps into the camp. Scarcely had the passengers all disembarked before the bus left. A third arrived immediately, dislodging a step in the process. The same process occurred no less than eight times within the hour.

“Our staff and volunteers are shocked by the conditions endured by the refugees during their crossing”.

Once inside the camp, the refugees are divided into groups based on their nationality before they can begin the process of formal registration. Ever since the camp was created in 2014, this process has consistently lasted for three days. Today, the measures of “Eurodac” - the European fingerprinting database for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants - has given way to interviews lasting fifteen minutes. “We see refugees straight away following their debriefing with the Frontex agents”, explains Electra Koutsoumani from Doctors of the World, which is the only NGO authorised to operate in the largest “hotspot” created by the state, controlled in large part by Frontex. “We immediately give them dry clothes and undertake a basic medical check-up. Our staff and volunteers are often shocked by the conditions of the journeys that these people have endured. They are simply crammed into the tiny boats”. Last week, a child suffocated from the sheer weight of others crowded around him. The scale of the humanitarian crisis often leaves no choice but to improvise. “The system changes constantly”, worries Electra. “It is a complex task to predict the short or long-term future with any clarity. Since the start of the week, for example, those arriving from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Morocco and Tunisia were immediately arrested and sent back to Turkey.”

A surge of solidarity from EU citizens takes root in Greece

Moria camp can accept 2,000 people. But, Electra continues, “the aim is that they move on as quickly as possible”. Faced with an influx of unmanageable proportions, the turnover must accelerate. On Lesbos the reception capacity is 7,000 places divided between the centres created by the state and those established by citizens who have come to Lesbos from all over Europe. One of these adjoins the Frontex hotspot. “We call it ‘Better Days in Moria’”, smiles Camilla, a British volunteer. “We distribute close to 2,000 meals every day to the inhabitants of one of our forty tents, and also to those in the state camp who do not always have the opportunity to eat three meals per day.” In this area of the camp, the emphasis is upon conviviality and providing information to the refugees. Documents and tables display the price of public transport, refugees’ rights, and details of the borders that are currently closed.

« With what is happening in Idomeni, I prefer to wait here », confesses Mohamed, seated at a table drinking tea with six Somalian compatriots. Husman, accompanied by his wife and two children, asserts that “We are Armenian – we will cross the border!” Travelling on foot, the family carries bags and blankets towards the port of Mytilene. At one Euro per person, they don’t plan to pay for the bus, nor the taxi, which is ten times more expensive.

Around 8pm, in front of the enormous ferry which is loaded evey day with 1,000 – 2,000 refugees, a group of young Syrians organise a photo of themselves. After an eleven-hour crossing they will be in Athens. “We have installed a clinic on board”, explains Dr. Alvin Sornum from Doctors of the World. “This allows us to take stock of the types of support that the refugees will require upon arrival in Athens”.

In the port of Piraeus, a vast hanger serves as emergency accommodation for almost 2,000 people, despite the dearth of showers, toilets and kitchens. People don’t stay here long. Some seek to enter other camps recently established by the state, or squats managed by volunteers.

Ahmad is an Afghan child aged barely two. His teasing smile contrasts with the exhausted appearance of his parents. His brother, younger still, sleeps on a blanket in the shadow of a public bench in Victoria Square in the centre of Athens. It is here that last week, two of their compatriots tried to hang themselves upon learning of the closure of the Macedonian border. Several hundred, weary and anxious, worried in desperation what would happen next. “The camps are closed?” wonders Ahmad’s father. “How, then, do we move on ? Should we, after all, aim for Idomeni ? We will find a way somehow...” The volunteers can barely respond; one admits that “in any case, the reception centres are saturated. At least here, the refugees are sure to be able to draw support from compassionate volunteers and to have the opportunity to eat.” A surge in public solidarity has rolled through Greece. In the islands, in Athens and also in the north, thousands give daily their time and energy. “With the crisis caused by the austerity of recent times, we take refuge in solidarity” explains Sofia Tzitzikou, president of the Greek branch of UNICEF. “This has not been a matter of choice; we were obliged to make this change. We have realised that together, we can refute injustice.” Certain volunteers drive their own vehicles to accompany those who wish to reach the Macedonian border. By bus, the journey takes thirteen hours. In a service station 20km to the north of Thessaloniki, a first camp of white UNHCR tents accommodates 1,500 people. From here, one can see a long line of refugees. In small groups, they walk to Idomeni camp at the Macedonian border.

The refugees burn wood logs to boil water for tea

Early in the morning on Saturday 5th March, one can hear in the distance a prayer emanating from the Orthodox church. Everything is calm and basked in sun. The large white tents which shelter hundreds of beds, closely packed together, begin to stir. Around these tents, in the midst of hundreds of other tents of many descriptions, wood logs are lit in order to boil water for tea. Queues form, reaching several hundred metres in length by the end of the day, composed of refugees patiently waiting to receive a food package. People crowd against one another to get their papers stamped and to receive a number which will take them to the border. Today, it is the turn of those with a number 17. Around 1pm, six people pass by, driven by soldiers in a lorry, who are subsequently deposited on the side of the road to Gevgelija, in Macedonia. Small groups pass, one by one, until nightfall. On the Greek side of the border, refugees push, jostle, pile up....in the hope of being among those lucky ones who made it across. Stamped papers are inspected rigorously.

Hiba’s child will be born on the road of their exile

«My name is Johaman, but they have put Goan », shows one refugee. “And I am from Palestine, not Syria”, contributes another. Abdalrahman, a young Iraqi Kurd points out that: “Look, they have written that my whole family: my mother, sister, brother and myself were all born on 1st January, although our passports were clearly marked correctly.” So many errors which serve to legitimise the Macedonian authorities to refuse entry to refugees. The camp continues to swell before one’s very eyes; on Tuesday1st March 8,000 people were massed close to the barbed wire barriers. This Sunday 6th March, there were almost twice this number, and the wave does not stop there. The future of the young Syrian with the unwavering gaze, Hiba, and that of her unborn child who will be brought into the world on the road of their exile, lie beyond the barbed wire barriers. But the future of the European Union may simply sit right here, in the troubles surrounding “the Balkans route”.

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