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Wet, Sick, and Stuck: Thousands of Children Are Facing Deteriorating Conditions on Europe's Borders

VICE News is at the Idomeni camp in Greece, where one-third of the 13,000 migrants and refugees trapped there are thought to be children — and the humanitarian crisis is rapidly getting worse.
March 9, 2016, 12:30pm
Photo par Harriet Salem/VICE News

For thousands of migrants and refugees trapped on Greece's border with Macedonia the dream of Europe is quickly becoming a nightmare as sealed borders, bad weather, and overcrowding are turning the Idomeni camp into a humanitarian crisis.

Aliyah Hussein cradled her baby. "Most of the day he cries, and at night I can hear him struggling for air," she told VICE News. Aged just 13 months her young daughter has an eye and respiratory infection. "The doctors gave her medicine, but she's getting worse not better."

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Approximately one-third of around 13,000 migrants stranded in the camp are thought to be children and those under five account for 20 percent of the referrals to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) doctors there.

"There's no way to tell exactly how many people there are, but we can say for sure is that every day the number of people is increasing and the conditions are deteriorating," Cristian Reynders, MSF's deputy coordinator in Idomeni, told VICE News. "This is not meant to be a camp to stay in, it's a transit camp and some people have are here for weeks already."

Related: Watch Greece's Impending Humanitarian Catastrophe: Breaking Borders (Dispatch 11)

Women and children wait by the Macedonian border at Idomeni camp hoping to be one of the few allowed through. (Photo by Pete Kiehart)

At night people huddle around fires for warmth, but shortages of wood have led to people burning whatever they can find, creating a toxic smog over the camp at night. "The people burn cardboard, clothes, plastics, anything they can get their hands on. It's causing a lot of respiratory problems, particularly in young children," Nick Sarchet, a primary care community nurse volunteering with an ambulance team, told VICE News.

"People with existing medical conditions are having health problems exacerbated, for the young, old, or people with asthma there is real risk of serious complications or developing pneumonia."

'It's appalling and unacceptable to have these conditions in Europe'

In the last week two children from the camp have been rushed to hospital. One was suffering with severe breathing difficulties and the other had been electrocuted while playing on railroad carriages.

With the camp now at more than seven times its capacity, lines for food parcels now snake through the main road of the site and waiting times are now up to three hours, with only one sandwich or cup of soup distributed per person.

Migrants grab food parcels from the back of a van where volunteers are distributing aid at Idomeni Camp. (Photo by Harriet Salem/VICE News)

"It's hard for me to stand for so long, I get faint," said 37-year-old Manal Yesin, as she held her one-year-old child. Now four months pregnant she fled Yarmouk Camp, a district of Damascus that has borne the brunt of some of the worst fighting in Syria, and is traveling alone after her husband was killed in January.

With two small children to care for and little money left, Yesin has little choice but to stand in line for the food parcels, however long it takes. "I have a lot of pain [from the pregnancy] but doctors say that unless there is blood that they can't do anything for me here," she said.

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Related: Thousands of Refugees Are Trapped in a Greek Mudbath as EU Edges Towards Controversial Deal

Pregnant women make up around 2 percent of the referrals to MSF doctors, and some women have been rushed to hospital after going into labor in the camp. "It's an extremely worrying situation that woman are giving birth here every week," said Reynders. "We are referring them to hospital but they come back to the camp with newborns. It's appalling and unacceptable to have these conditions in Europe — it's simply and purely shameful."

Rain has brought yet more misery, with overnight downpours flooding the camp and soaking migrants' clothes and blankets. Few of the flimsy shelters pitched in the fields are waterproof and tents intended for two people often sleep whole families.

Fields at Idomeni Camp flooded after heavy rains. (Photo by Pete Kiehart) 

"At first water was leaking into the tent so we tried to stop it with blankets. After an hour or so of rain, rain, rain, the tent was just sitting in a puddle," Hassan Abdullah, 37, told VICE News the night after a heavy downpour. After trying, and failing, to move the tent in the middle of the night his family were forced to cram in with a neighbor. "There was no room for us all to lie down, so in the end the adults sat up all night while the children slept in our laps —they were shivering in our arms from the cold."

'I thought I would die in Syria now I feel like I am going to die here'

Wheelchair-bound Rand Lamiyah, 34, suffers from cerebral palsy. Nights sleeping on a cold hard floor have left him in agony and unable to walk, so he depends on friends to carry him across the the muddy field. "I can't use the bathrooms or the showers," he told VICE News. "I thought I would die in Syria now I feel like I am going to die here."

Migrants try to dry clothes and shoes soaked during an overnight downpour at Idomeni Camp. (Photo by Harriet Salem/Vice News)

When the sun comes out migrants try to dry out their belongings, balancing shoes on tent poles and hanging clothes in trees and on the barbed wire border fence. With continuing uncertainty over what will happen with the border and more rain predicted in upcoming days, however, the situation is forecast to get still worse for the thousands of migrants stranded in Idomeni.

On Tuesday night, Fortress Europe took further steps to shore up its frontiers, as Serbia and Slovenia announced that they would further tighten restrictions and security at their borders, allowing only those with valid travel documents or clear humanitarian needs.

"Conditions in Idomeni are miserable, there is little humanitarian aid, little sanitation, and flooding in camps," Peter Bouckaert, emergency director at Human Rights Watch, told VICE News. "It's unacceptable to see this kind of human suffering in Europe. This is not a natural disaster it's a manmade one."

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem