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Asylum Seekers Say They're Ready to Die Protesting Illegal European Border Restrictions

VICE News visited a camp on the Greece-Macedonia border where asylum seekers are being denied entry based on their nationality, which the UN says is illegal. Dozens have sewn their lips shut in protest.

by Oscar Webb
Nov 24 2015, 6:20pm

Photo par Oscar Webb

Warning: Graphic image below

"If they die, Europe and the world has to answer for it." Hamid, an Iranian journalist accompanying a group of his countrymen who have sewn their lips shut in protest at their treatment at the Greece-Macedonia border, was clear. Lives were at stake and it was everyone's business.

The nine Iranians are among 60 people who have gone on hunger strike after being denied entry into Macedonia from Greece, thanks to a new filtering system put in place by several nations blocking the passage of "economic migrants."

"I don't feel good now. I haven't eaten anything for two days," one of the hunger strikers told VICE News with difficulty. Milad, a 20-year-old Iranian, had fainted earlier in the day hit his head on the steel railway track the men are sitting on. He was put on an IV drip by volunteer doctors.

The Iranians sewed their lips shut in a sombre protest on Monday, saying they will go on hunger strike until they are let into Macedonia. Photo by Oscar Webb

Milad and his friends are a human symbol of the dichotomy which has been gradually become established in Europe since the migration surge began: the deserving refugee fleeing war and persecution versus the opportunistic economic migrant who just wants a western lifestyle.

Many find this distinction overly simplistic and deeply flawed — but last week Slovenia decided it would only grant passage to worthy refugees, specifically those fleeing conflict in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Neighboring Croatia, Serbia, and Macedonia quickly followed suit.

"Economic migrants" were not welcome, it said, and tried to deport 168 Moroccans back to Croatia. And so, a pile-up has ensued, with growing numbers of people stranded around the Balkan borders.

The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR said Tuesday denying people the right to claim asylum on the basis of their nationality was a violation of international law, and warned migrants stranded in freezing winter weather was a "new humanitarian situation."

Milad, a 20-year-old Iranian who has sewn his lips shut in protest at Macedonia's new border policy. Photo by Oscar Webb

VICE News visited a camp outside the Greek village of Idomeni, filled with more than 2,000 people determined to cross the Balkans to Germany and other northern European countries despite the message that they are not welcome.

In scenes similar to the French refugee camp in Calais known as the Jungle, most people at Idomeni sleep in small tiny tents donated by volunteers and burn trees and rubbish at night to stay warm.

Protests are taking place daily. On Sunday VICE News watched as hundreds of people overpowered Greek police lines and rushed towards the Macedonian side of the border.

On Monday, the group of Iranians, furious at being stopped from entering Macedonia, staged a silent protest by sewing their mouthes shut. The sombre protest lasted all day and the Iranians plan to go on hunger strike indefinitely until they get let through.

The previous day the Iranians joined other protestors from Bangladesh and Morocco who got right up against Macedonian riot police, singing and shouting "Open the border!"

Asylum seekers are protesting new border restrictions put in place by several Balkan nations which the UN says are illegal. Photo by Oscar Webb

Many of the people stuck at Idomeni say they are not, contrary to Slovenian assertions, economic migrants; VICE News spoke to multiple people describing conflict and persecution in their own countries.

Milad, a twenty-year-old from Iranian Kurdistan said going back to Iran was not an option for him and his companions "If we go back we will be tortured and executed," he told VICE News.

"Some of us have converted to Christianity and others have political problems with the government. Our country is a dictatorship. We don't have any choice to be free in our country."

Milad has been at Idomeni for about a week. He nearly didn't make it. "Some of my friends, some families, sank in the sea. I myself was in the sea and the Greek coastguard had to save us. Some families, some of my friends drowned in the sea."

"We will stay here, we will die here if necessary," he said.

Ali, a nineteen-year-old student from Punjab in Pakistan, said he'd fled to Europe because of fighting between the Taliban and Pakistani government forces.

"Pakistan is in crisis. There is a war inside in Pakistan. Almost everyday there are bombings. Last year 132 children died in one attack. No one talks about that. We have no life there," he told VICE News.

"I've been waiting here for eight days. Half of our people are sick — they can't get the proper medicine here,' Ali said. "Our message to Europeans is: Please help us. Why can't we go? We are not humans? What's the reason? It's very unfair. If we go back to Pakistan, we will some day die in a bomb attack."

Around 1,000 people are stranded on the border from Greece into Macedonia, the UN said on Tuesday. Photo by Oscar Webb

Another large group at Idomeni is made up of Moroccans.

Isam Mikishi, a 21-year-old computer programmer from Morocco, questioned why he and other well-educated Moroccans could not go to Germany.

"We're not criminals. All the Moroccans here are well educated. Why can't we go to Europe?" he said. "This journey is very dangerous. Yesterday 16 Moroccans died on a boat off of Greece. If we go back, we'll be put in prison for two years. We're not allowed to leave our country."

Some refugees attempt to cross the border illegally at other places but many are caught by the police and returned to Idomeni.

Others are now going back to Athens to try to find other routes to Germany.

Special buses have been put on to take people from Idomeni back to the Greek capital and volunteers and aid organisations are encouraging people to go back, but many are refusing to give up.

Fences to keep unwanted refugees out are being planned across the Balkans. Slovenia is preparing to build one on its border with Austria and aid organisations [MSF] have said they believe Macedonia is also erecting a barrier.

Human rights groups have criticized the Balkan border closures, saying to deny entry to people based solely on nationality without looking at individual cases is a violation of asylum law.

In a statement last Thursday the Slovenian interior ministry said 'we absolutely need to provide protection to those who need it, whose lives are threatened, who are escaping war zones."

But others should not necessarily get to escape to Europe, it said. "No country has limitless capacity, so the capacity should be for those whose lives are really in need," it underlined.

Isam, the Moroccan computer programmer, made it clear his journey was indeed a matter of life and death. Echoing the sentiments of many at Idomeni, he summed up his options, as he saw them: "I have one choice: either I'll go to Germany or I'll die here."