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

VICE News is on the Greek border with Macedonia, where 14,000 people are camped out in tents hoping to reach northern Europe. Meanwhile, European and Turkish leaders are trying to reach a political deal.
March 8, 2016, 12:00pm
Imagen por Harriet Salem/VICE News

As politicians attempt to finalize a deal to stem the flow of refugees and migrants into Europe, some of the more than 14,000 people camped out at the Greek border town of Idomeni told VICE News that they will remain there — regardless of what European and Turkish leaders decide.

The bottleneck of people on the Greek-Macedonian border was sparked by Austria's decision in February to limit the number of people crossing into its territory, which escalated as other countries on the Balkan route into northern Europe followed suit.

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"We have no other choice," Nor Musa, a journalist who fled Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State (IS) in northern Syria, told VICE News in Idomeni. "If we can't move forward or backward then this it."

Related: Clearing France's Migrant Camps: What's Next For Thousands of Evicted Refugees?

Adding to the woes of those stuck in the camp, torrential rain on Monday night quickly turned the fields and walkways into a mud bath. Using a pole to attempt to build drainage canals around his family's tent, Mohammed, a 45-year-old from the Syrian city of Homs, called on Europe to reopen its borders.

"Think if this was your children. We are all humans," he told VICE News. Others attempted to waterproof their tents using metallic thermal blankets. "Look, at this Germany," shouted one Syrian woman holding up soaked children's clothes from the opening of her tent.

On the railroad tracks crowds of migrants, wearing donated plastic ponchos, braved the downpour to hold a demonstration. Scores of protesters chanted "Mama Merkel. Please!" referring to German chancellor Angela Merkel, and took it in turns to hoist the German flag above their heads.

Some expressed anger over the virtual closure of the route through Macedonia to Germany. "The policeman told me that people from Damascus will not be able to cross anymore," said 20-year-old Mauz. "But what does he know about it? What do these politicians know? Damascus is not a safe city it is in the middle of a war."

Young men chant "Mama Merkel. Please!" and wave the German flag at a demonstration at Idomeni camp. Many remain hopeful the border will reopen. (Photo by Harriet Salem/Vice News)

With many now camped out in Idomeni for more than two weeks, conditions in the ever expanding camp are deteriorating rapidly. While only a handful of migrants have crossed the border in recent days, hundreds more have arrived. Many families live in cramped conditions in flimsy tents, and some sleep outside with just blankets to cover them at night.

Meanwhile, at an emergency summit in Brussels, European Union (EU) leaders welcomed Turkey's offer on Monday to take back all migrants who cross into Europe from its soil and agreed in principle to Ankara's demands for more money, faster EU membership talks, and quicker visa-free travel in return.

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However, key details remained to be worked out and the 28 leaders ordered more work by officials with a view to reaching an ambitious package deal with Turkey at their next scheduled summit, on March 17-18.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron among others hailed the surprise Turkish proposal as a potential breakthrough in Europe's migration crisis.

'The days of irregular migration to Europe are over'

On Tuesday, the United Nations voiced concern about the EU-Turkey agreement and any deal involving "the blanket return of all individuals from one country to another" without their protection under international law being spelled out adequately.

"Legal safeguards would need to govern any mechanism under which responsibility would be transferred for assessing an asylum claim," the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in a statement.

Europe's commitments to resettle refugees remained "very low compared to the needs, 20,000 places within two years on a voluntary places," it said.

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

More than a million people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and beyond have flooded into the EU since early 2015, most making the perilous sea crossing from Turkey to Greece, then heading north through the Balkans to Germany.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told EU leaders that Ankara was willing to take back all migrants who enter Europe from Turkey in future, including Syrian refugees, as well as those intercepted in its territorial waters.

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"With this game-changing position in fact our objective is to discourage illegal migration, to prevent human smugglers, to help people who want to come to Europe through encouraging legal migration in a disciplined and regular manner," he told a news conference after the summit.

In exchange for stopping the influx, he demanded doubling EU funding through 2018 to help Syrian refugees stay in Turkey and a commitment to take in one Syrian refugee directly from Turkey for each one returned from Greece's Aegean islands, according to a document seen by Reuters.

He also asked to bring forward EU visa liberalization for Turks to June from end-2016 and to open five more negotiating chapters in Turkey's long-stalled EU accession process.

Related: We Visited the Lesser-Known French Migrant Camp That's Next in Line for Evictions

The EU leaders agreed to the earlier target date for visa-free travel provided Ankara meets all the conditions including changing its visa policy towards Islamic states and introducing harder-to-fake biometric passports.

They left open how much additional aid they would provide for refugees in Turkey and made only a vague reference to preparing for a decision on opening more areas of membership talks.

European Council President Donald Tusk, who chaired the summit, said the outcome would show migrants that there was no longer a path into Europe for people seeking a better life. "The days of irregular migration to Europe are over," he told a joint news conference with Davutoglu.

Reuters contributed to this report.