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Why Activists Are Being Blamed for the Drowning of Three Refugees in Macedonia

Flyers were distributed on Monday at Idomeni refugee camp instructing recipients to meet at a given location to cross a "dry" river and sneak into Macedonia. On Tuesday three people drowned.
Photo by Nicolas Economou

A crude map was printed on the piece of paper, marking a pathway through fields and woodland to the border. "Meet at 12pm.. we will circumvent the wall…the river is dry," the leaflet instructed in Arabic. "Hide or destroy this brochure. Do not give to police or journalists. Good luck!"

The flyers, which were distributed at the Idomeni refugee camp on the Greek-Macedonian border on Monday morning, also warned that those that stayed behind would soon be evicted and deported back to Turkey. Those that took the suggested illegal route through Eastern Europe would have the chance to claim asylum in Germany, it said.


For the desperate migrants trapped in horrific conditions at Idomeni the leaflet represented a small glimmer of hope that a way out might still be open. Around 13,000 people are stuck there, after Macedonia, Serbia, and Slovenia announced that they would no longer allow people without valid visas to pass their borders, effectively sealing the so-called Balkan route to the west and north shut.

Instead, its instructions seemingly led to the death of three people, who drowned in treacherous torrents of icy-cold water.

A crude map distributed to migrants in Idomeni camp shows a crude map directing migrants to cross the Greek border with Macedonia across the River Suva. (Photo via Twitter)

Nobody knows for sure who distributed the deadly directions. But, in a rare moment of agreement, the Macedonian and Greek authorities have both pointed the finger at activists and volunteer groups working in Idomeni.

The gathering in Idomeni started, as scheduled on the leaflet, just after noon on Tuesday near the exit of the camp. At first the mood was jubilant, and the crowd of hundreds quickly grew to more than a thousand.

Streams of people carrying backpacks and sleeping bags made their way along the winding path towards the dense scrubland leading to the border. Chants of "Germany," the preferred end destination for many of the migrants, rang through the air. Women walked hand-in-hand with children, some had babies strapped to their chests. On Twitter, #marchofhope was used to track their progress through the muddy fields.

But after a three-mile trek the marchers discovered the "dry river" was far from dry. Instead, they were greeted with a treacherous icy-cold stream of water swollen by heavy rains, and on the other side, hostile Macedonian forces.


"When we arrived at the river there were volunteers who helped us across the water with ropes," Mohammed, a 32-year-old Iraqi, told VICE News. "I think some were from England, maybe Germany." Taking off his shoes and hoisting his five-year-old daughter on his shoulders he crossed first with his wife behind him. But on the other side the family was picked up immediately by the waiting Macedonian army who detained them along with hundreds of others before returning them, wet and cold, back across the border into Greece.

"The children were scared, my wife was scared, I was cold. It was a bad situation and for nothing because now we are back here," Mohammed added.

Other migrants that VICE News spoke to said that they were beaten by Macedonian security forces while being detained and showed cuts and bruises on their faces, arms and legs.

A migrant stumbles while crossing the River Suva on the Greek border with Macedonia. Authorities from both countries have blamed volunteers for organizing the mass illegal crossing. (Photo by Nicolas Economou)

For others, however, the situation was much worse. In the early hours of the morning, not long after the leaflet was first distributed in Idomeni, a small group of migrants had tried to make the journey alone ahead of the en masse march.

The results were fatal. With no rope in place or helping hands to haul them across the river three members of the party — including a pregnant woman from Afghanistan and her 17-year-old sister — were swept away by fierce currents and drowned. Another 23 were rescued by Macedonian security forces and taken to hospital for immediate medical treatment.


Now, both the Macedonian and Greek governments have condemned activists and volunteer groups.

"Unknown people, perhaps groups that call themselves volunteers, handed out leaflets advising migrants to cross the border by bypassing the fence and warning that if migrants left the overflowing Idomeni camp for shelters in northern Greece, they would be imprisoned there. This is criminal behavior toward people who face great hardship…This must stop," said Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

Greek police confirmed that they had opened an investigation into the matter. "We try to establish what happened and who is responsible for the origin of these leaflets and mass movement of people toward the border area," a representative from the investigating police force told VICE News. "It is hoped that we will have some conclusions in upcoming days."

"We are talking about a very serious incident, three people died crossing at this exact spot identified on this leaflet… just hours before this mass crossing" Ivica Bocevski, advisor to the Macedonian president, told VICE News. "These groups were clearly directed by someone familiar with the terrain… the people who distributed these leaflets did something dangerous and not responsible, refugees are vulnerable people in need, and these people manipulated them."

"Everything in this leaflet was precisely delineated including the place that they were capable of crossing the border, it [shows] that this was organized," he added.


Volunteers help an elderly woman cross the River Suva near the Greek border with Macedonia. Hours earlier three migrants drowned trying to cross the stretch without assistance. (Photo by Nicolas Economou)

Some aid workers in Idomeni who said they tried to dissuade the migrants from crossing the border also noted that the group of westerners helping those across seemed very well-prepared. "It's strange that they had rope there, and some people were wearing visibility vests," said one Swedish woman working with an international NGO, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue. "[It was] as if they had notification they would carry out this task," she added.

However, other grassroots volunteer groups rejected claims that activists were behind the disastrous march. A German group called Border Monitor EU denounced claims in the media that activists had distributed the flyer.

"It is insulting to those who took their destiny into their own hands and took the decision to march together, to think that a flyer could be the sole cause of their decision-making," the group posted on it's Idomeni Live Ticker blog. "The violence of the border closure in Idomeni as well as the squalid living conditions people have been subjected to are themselves good enough reasons to decide to take collective action"

But Macedonian authorities said that on Tuesday they arrested 72 journalists and volunteers from Western nations, including 19 from Germany, for illegally crossing the border. All were released after paying a fine of €250 ($277) and returned to Greece. The police also noted that several activists tried to falsely represent themselves as journalists.


Thousands of volunteers from across Europe and beyond have travelled to Idomeni and other hotspots along the Balkan route traversed by most of the some 1.2 million migrants that have arrived on the continent over the last year.

The leaflet distributed at the Idomeni refugee camp on the Greek-Macedonian border on Monday morning also warned that those that stayed behind would soon be evicted and deported back to Turkey. (Photo Twitter)

Among them are trained medics, social workers, and lawyers taking time off from their jobs to help those in need; providing basic health care and distributing food, blankets, and clothes. But the crisis has also attracted the attention of hardline anarchist groups, including the "No Borders Network" a loose affiliation of groups and individuals that oppose border controls. In January eight members of the group were arrested by French police in Calais after they agitated migrants and stormed a ferry with them.

Several NGO groups, whose work is often a lifeline for migrants, urged activists not to take individualist radical actions or partake in illegal border crossings. "We were all furious when we saw it. Of course we don't want people stuck in Idomeni, nobody does, but there are some people that don't accept the reality on-the-ground that at the moment the borders are closed," said Tanjana, a representative from Are You Syrious?, a group that provides real-time information on the migrant crisis and helps coordinate volunteer efforts across Europe.

"This is a printed flyer, I can't say for sure who did it, but I don't think refugees have access to the information and technology to make this and print it out, so the conclusion is that in all probability an activist made it."


"A lack of information from the authorities also contributed to this mess," she added. "In this kind of environment there are a lot of rumors, that's something we are trying to stop, but people are desperate to know something so it's easy for rumors to spread fast once they start."

More than 1,500 migrants crossed into Macedonia illegally on Tuesday. All were returned back to the Greek side of the border by the Macedonian authorities. (Photo by Nicolas Economou)

With more than 45,000 migrants already in Greece, and more arriving every day by boat, the country's government has called for calm and urged those seeking asylum to progress through legitimate channels such as a Europe-wide resettlement scheme, rather than attempt to cross the border illegally. Are You Syrious? also warned volunteers to not assist migrants in making illegal border crossings, noting that there was a risk that they could be "charged with human trafficking." In January Greek authorities on the island of Lesbos arrested five Spanish and Danish volunteers and accused them of assisting with smuggling people into the country.

Commenting on the Idomeni incident, Human Rights Watch's Emergencies Division Director Peter Bouckaert cautioned that activists and volunteers should put the safety of migrants above everything else. "The first principle of any humanitarian assistance should be to do no harm to those we seek to help. Period," he told VICE News.

Additional reporting by Nicolas Economou

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem