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Behind migrant protests, children live in limbo at Macedonia's border

With the Macedonian border closed to all but Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan refugees, many children seeking asylum are stuck in a cold and dusty no man's land. Oscar Lopez reports from Idomeni, Greece.

"The things some of these kids draw, they're awful," said Iro Kofokotsios, 18. "People with guns, war, torture." Kofkotsios had come with a group of volunteers from the YMCA to the Greek border with Macedonia "We couldn't bring them shelter or food," she continued, "but we thought maybe we could bring them smiles."

Here at the refugee camp near the town of Idomeni, Greece, smiles are hard to come by. After the Macedonian government announced last week that it would only allow migrants from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq to cross its border, thousands here have been left behind. It's led to daily protests, with the border at times being closed altogether. On Monday, a group of Iranian men sewed their lips together in desperation.

But behind the crowds of angry, screaming men confronting the Greek riot police, in the camp set up by aid agencies, there are an estimated 70 children who are also stranded in this dusty no man's land. Most are Iranian or Pakistani, with some from Morocco, Somalia, Sudan, Bangladesh and other countries. Many have come with their parents, others have come alone. But with the border now closed to these nationalities, all of them are stuck in refugee limbo.

On Sunday, Kofokotsios and her fellow volunteers had come from Thessaloniki to set up arts and crafts tables and were playing games like "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" with about a dozen kids, some as young as three or four.

The games and drawings were a big success: The sounds of the children laughing and singing almost drowned out the chanting and screaming of protesters at the border. Many adults looked on, also finding a reason to smile.

A faraway future

Approximately 25 percent of the more than 700,000 migrants who have arrived in Greece this year are children. Their journey has already been harrowing: On the dangerous waters of the Mediterranean, the risk of drowning is high. According to Kate O'Sullivan from Save the Children, since the infamous photo of the drowned Syrian boy was taken in September, 110 more children have lost their lives at sea. Now with the Macedonian border closed, for many, the perilous crossing may have been in vain.

Volunteers play with children at Idomeni refugee camp

Volunteers get the children playing - and smiling

Save the Children has set up a "Safe Space" at the camp in a small white tent not far from the Macedonian border. "These children are exhausted and frightened," says O'Sullivan. "The space gives them a chance to relax, to draw or paint. To be kids again."

Many children talk about and draw their past, but most just want to think about a better future: "I have hundreds of drawings of homes," says O'Sullivan. "New homes where they're going to live when they finally make it."

But with the new restrictions from the Macedonian government, that future is beginning to seem ever farther away. "Closing the border opens the door to violence, to exploitation, to trafficking," says Bertrand Desmoulins from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) on the phone from Skopje, Macedonia's capital. "Many of these minors are so determined to get to Germany, to go to school, to become engineers or doctors, they'll do anything to get across."

'Glad to be on the other side'

But even for those allowed across the border, the new restrictions have made the journey more difficult.

Feda, 16, had travelled from her village near Homs in Syria with her aunt and uncle and two cousins, aged three and four. She declined to give her last name for safety reasons but explained that her family had finally decided to leave Syria when a bomb was dropped on their village, killing six adults and 12 children. "They were standing in line for bread," said Feda.

Like many, her journey across the Mediterranean was perilous. "Our boat started to take on water, up to here," she said, pointing at her knees. "Every hour felt like a week." But after making it to land, travelling through Greece and finally reaching the Macedonian border, they found the way blocked by angry migrants protesting the government's decision to restrict the border.

"We had to wait all night," said Feda. "We didn't sleep. We didn't eat. It was so cold. I'm so glad to be on the other side."

Despite her difficult journey, being Syrian means she can get through not just Macedonia but also Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia, which have all also closed their borders to all asylum-seekers not fleeing her country, Iraq or Afghanistan.

Asylum seekers-hold a sign asking Angela Merkel for help

Migrants are finding themselves stuck at European borders if they don't hail from countries recognized as unsafe

Travelling with her aunt and uncle also provides Feda with some degree of protection. Many are not so lucky: According to Macedonia's interior ministry, in the first three weeks of November alone, 4,259 unaccompanied minors were registered in Macedonia. That was before the new screening process: Now many of those trying to get to western Europe will be stuck in Greece, forced to find other ways to get through.

"It opens the way to fraud," said Alexandra Krause from the UNHCR, who works at the camp on the Macedonian side of the border. "Everyone might suddenly become Syrian or Iraqi."

Still, Feda, at least, is hopeful about the future. "I'm going to Germany," she said. "To go back to school. I want to be an engineer."

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