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Hampered by new border controls, migrants make case for asylum

As Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans pass through Balkan states, asylum-seekers from other nations remain stuck in Greece and protest against new border controls. Diego Cupolo reports from Idomeni refugee camp.

Late Friday night, Mohamed Abdul-Kadir sat uncomfortably by a campfire as his four children slept on cardboard boxes nearby. For three days he had been waiting there, 25 meters from the Macedonian border in Idomeni refugee camp, watching Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans pass through.

A Somali citizen, Abdul-Kadir was barred from entering Macedonia on Wednesday under new border regulations that ban migrants from so-called "non-conflict zones." Contemplating his next move, he shifted his weight and held a rigid posture, complaining of severe back pain after being beaten by al-Shabab militants.

"I was a restaurant owner and I didn't want to work with al-Shabab so their men beat me with the back of their rifles," he said. "The next day, I told my family we had to leave Somalia."

Abdul-Kadir was with a group of about 45 Somalis who did not know what to do after arriving in Idomeni, Greece, and finding a closed border. Not only were they stuck, but they were discriminated against by other refugees in the camp, who would not let them enter the heated tent areas provided by Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

Pakistani asylum-seekers sit around a campfire in Idomeni refugee camp

'We live in the same conditions as Afghanistan,' said Iftikhar Ahmed (not pictured) from Pakistan. 'If our homes were safe, we wouldn’t come here'

"Somalia has had civil war for 25 years," said Abdirashid Ali Malin, a Frankfurt-based Somali journalist who was helping in the camp. "But that's not the issue. Human rights are for everyone. We should all have the opportunity to live well and live in safety. No one can tell us, 'You are not Syrian so you don't have human rights.'"

Preparing for long term

Between 4,000 to 6,000 refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan pass into Macedonia on a daily basis, according to Luca Guanziroli, the camp's UNHCR team leader. Due to new border restrictions, anyone not from these three countries must stay in Greece. They receive little to no information about where they will go next, and many are choosing to wait in Idomeni to see if the border will reopen anytime soon.

Guanziroli said the camp's tent capacity was increased to shelter 2,500 people, up from 1,500 last Wednesday, but many continue to sleep outside on cardboard boxes as new bus loads of people arrive at all hours.

"This is not a camp, it's a transit center," Guanziroli said. "It was not designed to hold this many people, and we are currently looking for another site more suitable for long-term inhabitants."

Who is a refugee?

Of those stuck in Idomeni, the majority hail from Iran and Pakistan, while others arrive from Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Morocco and Nepal. Each group has its specific case for asylum - usually involving authoritative governments or lagging responses to economic and natural disasters - and each group also organizes daily protests near the border to bring attention to their circumstances.

"The people leading our country can't lead a small town," Mohsen Adine, a 27-year old interior designer from Iran.

Bangladeshi asylum-seekers protesting at Idomeni

Bangladeshi asylum-seekers protesting at the border say their country is experiencing unprecedented religious extremism

Wearing bandages on his head and right hand, Adine said he lost his temper during a protest Saturday night and rushed towards the Macedonian police, who beat him with batons.

"I can't look at my people living like this and do nothing," he said. "Women and children are sleeping in the cold while other refugees pass the border … Iran has a war too, it's just a silent war."

His girlfriend, Mahshid Derakhshan, a 21-year-old break dance instructor from Tehran, said she had to secretly run her women's only hip-hop dance school because her government was too closed-minded.

"If [the government] knew what I was doing, they would stop my business and put me in jail," Derakhshan asked.

Mohsen Adine and Mahshid Derakhshan sit near their tent in Idomeni refugee camp

'If I die here, it's better than going back to my country,' said Mohsen Adine (l), here with Mahshid Derakhshan

Zehra, an Iranian who did not want to give her real name, said she was kicked out of her computer science program after her university discovered she had converted to Christianity. Forced to leave Iran, Zehra began working under the table in Turkey a year ago, but returned home in early November after her father suffered a heart attack. When authorities were notified of her presence, she said they came to her house and attacked her.

"Look at my face," Zehra said, pointing at blotches of purple on her cheeks and temples. "The Iranian police did this to me … they hit me until I collapsed. When I opened my eyes I was in the police station. My family paid for me to get out."

Zehra said she can speak four languages and would like to complete her degree, but it's impossible for her to live in Iran. She is seeking asylum in Europe with her sister, whose law practice was closed by government officials after they discovered she was helping women file divorce claims against abusive husbands.

"Iran is a good country, but not for women," Zehra said. "In the next life, I hope I won't be a woman because women have a lot of problems."

After waiting days at the border, an Iranian tried to cut his wrists in protest against the border controls

After waiting four days at the border, an Iranian man tried to cut his wrists with a razor in protest against the new border controls

While many travel lightly, each person carries his or her own reason for waiting at the border. Forged documents are readily available, and many contemplate buying temporary Iraqi citizenship for 50 euros ($53) to move forward. Others lose their cool, such as an Iranian man who tried to slit his wrists with a razor to protest the blockade Sunday afternoon before Macedonian police intervened.

As thousands of so-called "economic migrants" await their fate in Idomeni, many have already left the camp to find alternate routes to Germany. On Sunday night, about half the Somali group boarded a bus to Thessaloniki. When asked where they were going, one simply replied: "Another place."

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