Desperation on the Greek Border as Europe Threatens to Shut its Doors

VICE News visited Greece's northern border, which the European Union is threatening to effectively seal off if the country does not stem the flow of refugees.
January 29, 2016, 1:20pm
The razor wire fence stretching along the Greek-Macedonian border. Photo by Nicola Zolin

"How many countries from here until Germany?" asked Mahfuz Jalili, 16, collecting information to relay to the group of 17 friends and family members who left suburbs of Kabul a month ago only to become temporarily stranded on the Greek-Macedonian border.

"Five?! How much will that cost?!" Mahfuz looks worried. Out of just over $3,000 that his father gave him to make the mammoth voyage from Afghanistan, he has only $50 left, and after more than a day waiting at a gas station on a highway leading to Macedonia, he is getting anxious that Europe may be about to close.

"I don't really even want to go to Germany, there are too many refugees there," he told VICE News. "I thought about trying to get to Ireland so I can study engineering. Afghanistan is abnormal, I had to leave."

As Muhfaz spoke, yet more buses from the Greek capital of Athens swept into the car park and the air become thick with smoke as refugees begun to light bonfires with plastic and kindling foraged from nearby woods.

Refugees and migrants keep warm burning trash at a gas station about 15 miles from the Idomeni border crossing. Photo by Nicola Zolin

The border crossing at Idomeni, a Greek town on the Macedonian border, became an epicenter of Europe's migration crisis last December when Macedonia abruptly stopped letting through anyone who wasn't from Syria, Afghanistan, or Iraq, leaving thousands stranded — a move which has since been followed by repeated openings and closures.

Though the back and forth has been attributed by the Macedonian authorities to the fact that camps further up the western Balkans route are full to capacity, signs indicate that they are actually a rehearsal for an imminent total closure of Greece's northern border, which is the principal entry point for migrants and refugees into Europe.

On Monday a leaked letter revealed European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker's approval of a plan to finally seal off the border with Macedonia with police and surveillance equipment in an attempt to make Greece a dead end for refugees hoping to reach Europe.

The proposal prompted a furious backlash from the Greek migration minister Yiannis Mouzalas, who told the Financial Times: '"We do not intend to become a cemetery of souls here."

As Europe still struggles to formulate a strategy to quell the inexorable tide of refugees fleeing misery in the Middle East, a vision of what ring-fencing Greece would entail is in bleak evidence at Idomeni and Polykastro, a town 15 miles south, where the bottlenecks are overwhelming aid agencies.

International medical NGO Medecins Sans Frontieres operates six heated tents at the Eko gas station, 15 miles from the Idomeni crossing point. "Last weekend, fifty buses were stopped here, there was nearly 3,000 people stuck lying everywhere on the floor, and the temperature was -15 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit)," head of the medical team, Jolien Coelpaert told VICE News. "There were babies everywhere, you heard them crying out in the darkness. We see hypothermia, fever, dehydration, shock caused by cold and psychological trauma cases linked to violent warfare. There are things going on here that should not be going on in Europe."

A similarly ominous mood is present among humanitarian workers at the official border crossing at Idomeni. "Closing the border is our biggest fear," said Athina Koukali from the NGO Praksis. "We have no way of knowing when that will happen, and no idea what we will do if it does."

A small child standing outside one of the NGO-run tents, in front of graffiti protesting the closure of the border to anyone not from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. Photo by Nicola Zolin.

On one white canvas tent, posters with large warnings are displayed in English, Arabic, and Farsi warning refugees of the "deception, threats and violence" they face from people smugglers. After a week of hostile language and punishing legislation against refugees, it could also be seen as referring to some European Union leaders.

On Tuesday, the Danish parliament voted to back a series of measures designed to deter refugees from coming, including seizing their cash and valuable assets. Later that day the Greek migration minister Yiannis Mouzalas claimed to the BBC that the Belgian migration minister Theo Francken had advised him to build permanent refugee camps in Greece for up to 400,00 and to push back refugees' boats in the sea "even if you drown them."

Speaking in parliament on Wednesday, British Prime Minister David Cameron referred to asylum seekers in camp in the French town of Calais — many of them war refugees and children — as "a bunch of migrants."

A father helping his daughter eating at the gas station of Polikastro, about 15 miles from the Greek-Macedonian border. Photo by Nicola Zolin

Iraqi teenager Nejem, 15, left Baghdad 11 days ago with his mother, brothers, and sisters; VICE News met him as he restlessly paced around a cavernous tent in the makeshift camp at Idomeni, which is home to at least 1,000 people. He sold his phone that morning to get enough money for the public transport up to Germany where he wants to train to be a boxer, if the road ahead remains open.

"We decided to leave after my father died like everyone in Bagdad, in a bomb explosion," he said. "Some of my uncles were killed too as they worked for the Americans. The last one to die, I saw his head. I was ten years old, we opened the door of his house and just saw it on the ground. You have to kill your heart in Iraq, you see everything. If they close the border, I will go up to the soldiers and tell them "We came from Iraq and could have died every day to reach Germany and now you are stopping us? I'm going to kick your asses."

Related: How Volunteers From All Over the World Have Transformed the Refugee Crisis on Lesbos

On Thursday, a boat sunk off the coast of the Greek island of Samos, drowning 26 refugees, 10 of them children. In 2012, the EU reprimanded Greece for unsatisfactorily controlling its frontier, prompting Greece to fence off their land border with Turkey, leaving refugees' with little option but to risk their life over the Aegean Sea.

Dr Angeliki Dimitriadi, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told VICE News the closure of the Macedonian border could unleash destructive forces in Greece.

"The political impact will be significant. Greece is already financially unstable but also politically," she said. "The bottleneck will transform the country eventually into a vast transit space, with thousands waiting to cross, put added pressure on authorities that are already unable to cope, probably increase xenophobia and strengthen the far right but it will also add fuel to the anti-EU discourse."

After being registered, refugees queue to receive food and assistance from NGOs. Photo by Nicola Zolin

Nehmatullah, 28, from the Shindand district of Afghanistan, stood alone in the fields outside the Idomeni camp, gazing across at the amber sun sinking into the snow-capped Voras mountains beyond the 10ft high razor wire fence cutting across Macedonia. It's his second time attempting the journey from his country to western Europe.

"I lived in Sheffield in England for six years, it was great," he said. "What I miss most is walking in the countryside at the weekends. One day I was picking up a fruit delivery outside the supermarket where I worked when an immigration officer asked for my papers. My uncle begged them not to deport me as my father had been killed by Taliban and they told me I would be next. But they sent me back."

Nehmatullah slowly spreads his palms, revealing red, swollen fingertips. "They ripped out my fingernails, and put salt in the bare flesh. Then they said if they see me again they will kill me."

He fled, leaving behind his wife and baby with friends and setting out for Germany where he hopes to be able exercise family reunification to bring them to Europe — a right that Denmark recently voted to prohibit for three years.

"When I first left Afghanistan in 2004, it took me one year to reach England," he said. "Now it's much quicker, but I just hope they don't close all the borders in my face before I make it."

Follow Andrew Connelly on Twitter: @connellyandrew

All photos by Nicola Zolin.  Follow Nicola Zolin on Twitter: __@zolinphoto

Related: 'Refugees Will Break the Wall': On the Frontlines of Hungary's Immigration Fence