A little after 8AM on Tuesday morning, the first four coaches with refugees left the makeshift refugee camp at Idomeni, near the border between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia. Two other coaches followed about half an hour later. By 10AM, a total of 609 refugees were on their way to organised refugee camps outside Thessaloniki – Greece's second largest city. It marks the beginning of the end for Idomeni, an uncontrolled refugee camp rivalling the 'Jungle' in Calais in size and dourness. About 8,500 people were trapped in Idomeni, destitute and living in abysmal conditions.
Starting at dawn on Tuesday, a large-scale police evacuation involved approximately 1,400 police officers from all over Greece. The Greek police have set up a security cordon of three miles around the camp, and at 6AM police removed journalists from both Greek and international media from the area. One team from the Greek public television channel ERT and two photographers from the state news agency were allowed entry to the camp – but even they are to keep a distance of over 600 feet from the evacuation.
The fact that access during the evacuation has been so difficult for national and international media has sparked a lot of criticism from journalists, who have accused the Greek government of imposing a media blackout. Journalists working for German newspaper Bild, Liana Spyropoulou and Paul Ronzheimer, hid in the camp, but Ronzheimer was removed by the police around 11AM. All volunteers from NGOs working in the camp had been removed as early as Monday night, while police helicopters hovered overhead and the area resembled a military zone.
Aerial footage of the evacuation released by the Greek police
Refugees and journalists on the Macedonian side of the border told VICE that the evacuation began with the tents near the reinforced border fence. According to reports, there was no resistance from refugees, who were separated according to their ethnicity and boarded buses in groups of 50. Many of them had already packed their things and waited patiently for the police – mainly Syrian and Iraqi families with young children. Young immigrants travelling alone from Afghanistan, Morocco, Algeria and Central Africa were recently involved in clashes with the police at Idomeni, which hasn't happened today – some of them may have left the camp early to try to cross the border to Macedonia.
The operation will continue in the next few hours, moving from the camp to the railway tracks of the train line between Thessaloniki and Belgrade, which was occupied by tents and shacks.
Giorgos Kyritsis – spokesman for the government's coordination panel on migration – said on Monday that the evacuation might take up to ten days, until all 8,425 refugees have been moved from Idomeni to official shelters. Kyritsis assured that "this is not a police sweep where everyone will be evacuated in a day, but a much more smooth migration process."
The first refugees who have been removed from Idomeni will be accommodated in centres in Sindos – a suburb of Thessaloniki. Late last week, the Greek government announced that 6,500 places had been created in nine new centres, spanning seven buildings and two large tents. Asked about the exclusion of journalists from Idomeni, Kyritsis said on Greek TV channel Mega that "there are restrictions in such operations anywhere in the world." He added that the first phase of the operation "should not be under the eye of too many cameras" and that over the next period, things will be more easy and open.
The Greek-Macedonian border has been closed since mid-March, when the so-called Balkan route was effectively sealed for migrants. In 2015, almost one million people have gone through Idomeni to the Balkans and Central Europe, until the Macedonian government decided to build a double metal fence for 25 miles along the border, preventing any more people from crossing.
That fence trapped an enormous number of migrants in Greece, stuck in the rain and mud. Volunteer doctors and NGOs recorded gastroenteritis, outbreaks of skin diseases and children being born in squalid and unhealthy circumstances – a humanitarian drama outside of any notion of international law. Conflicts among refugees over a position in line for soup or phone chargers were a daily ordeal.
The effort to persuade refugees to leave Idomeni has been going on for a week and a half – approximately 3,000 people are estimated to have moved to the organised camps so far. As of Tuesday, a total of 54,124 refugees were estimated to be present on the Greek islands and mainland.
More from VICE