At least 12,000 refugees are massed at the Greek border post Idomeni pleading for passage across the Balkans. They await the outcome of EU-Turkey discussions of a controversial resettlement scheme, Jacob Resneck writes.
The border village Idomeni is little more than a whistle stop and customs post. But in recent days it's mushroomed to a tent city of at least 12,000 men, women and children braving rain, mud and an infectious cough that moves quickly through the camp.
"This camp was designed as a transit camp for 1,500 people so we never expected this number of people," Jean-Nicolas Dangelser, a logistician for Doctors Without Borders, which has set up tents and a health clinic. "It's really hard to not get sick here because of the weather conditions - it's very cold and humid - so we are trying to prevent diseases."
Donated camping tents line the passenger platform and the muddy railway. Every few hours, polite but firm police officers push the crowd back to make room for lumbering freight trains to pass. The crowd watches as shipping containers and boxcars cross a frontier that remains off-limits to them since Macedonia sealed the border and ending the so-called Balkan route.
Now the Greek government is struggling with what is fast becoming a humanitarian crisis and is adding capacity for about 50,000 people in "reception centers" being hastily constructed away from the border.
"I hope the situation at Idomeni is resolved within a week without recourse to force," Dimitris Vitsas, the Greek minister charged with coordinating the refugee flow, told the Greek channel Mega TV on Friday.
Refugees are loath to claim asylum in Greece, which is in the throes of an economic crisis that leaves scant job prospects and crippled public services.
Some are leaving for a warm bed and shower and others are only now arriving.
But after 18 days living in a damp tent, 40-year-old Samir Mersel is one of those who has had enough.
"I've lost my hope in the opening of the border," the Damascus-born Palestinian said as he waited to board an Athens-bound charter bus with his nine-year-old son.
After 17 years working as an assistant surgeon in Syria, he says he figured he could find an EU country to accept him. "I don't like to sit without working," he said. "I like to work, to move, it gives you power - happiness."
Much of the chatter inside the camp is focused on the upcoming Brussels meeting between European leaders and Turkey. Few seem to take the proposed EU-Turkey resettlement scheme seriously and are hoping for borders to reopen.
Aid workers say they're frankly shocked by the potential of mass deportations and a cold arithmetic in which the EU and Turkey would trade individuals one-for-one for resettlement.
"We're really horrified by the twisted logic behind the deal that's being proposed," said Dan Stewart of Save the Children. "People are not bargaining chips to be passed between one country and another."
The United Nations refugee agency says mass deportations are illegal. And welfare groups say it would be immoral as it would tacitly encourage the deadly sea journey between Turkey and Greece.
"This deal as it has been laid out would currently seem to require one person to risk their life crossing the sea in order for another person to be taken from Turkey into the EU," Stewart said.
Return to Turkey unthinkable
These people have already paid thousands of euros and risked their lives to get from Turkey to Greece and aren't about to go back now. Mahmoud is a fast-talking 22-year-old from Damascus who says he's already tried living in Istanbul but was preyed upon by unscrupulous employers.
"You will work so hard - about the whole day - but you won't get good money, they won't give you your pay," he said outside an abandoned box car where his family has taken shelter from the rain.
He shows a gash on his forehead he says he got while being roughed up by the Turkish coast guard which caught him the first time he'd tried to cross.
Eager to keep their message in the headlines, refugees make a ritual of demonstrating in front of the television journalists who make a daily pilgrimage to the camp. "Open the border!" and appeals to German Chancellor Angela Merkel are common cries as impassive Greek riot police stand by.
"I am trying to go to Germany because I have a problem with my kidneys," says Dalal, a 46-year-old nurse from Latakia who speaks English from her university days. She's traveled with her two children and sister looking for safety. "I want to get treatment because in Syria there's no medication and my husband has already died."
Volunteers counter xenophobia
Central European countries have imposed stringent border controls, and the masses at Idomeni are the result of the domino effect of closures on the Balkan route. There are now more than 40,000 in Greece with more arriving from Turkey every day.
But even if politicians in countries like Slovakia are outwardly hostile to migrants, individuals are here with donated clothes, food and other supplies to help.
Tereza Szabova, a Slovak volunteer with the Institute for Migration and Communication, says her country's political leaders have cynically capitalized on public fears over Middle Eastern refugees.
"They are afraid that many thousands of them will come and we won't know how to handle them, or they are afraid of the other culture or something." Szabova said as she loaded a van for the 18-hour drive back to Bratislava. "Now I can tell people at home that it's not as bad as they think it is. I think when I come home now I can tell them that it's not so bad with people and we need to help them."
Toying with civil disobedience
There's a sense that patience among both Greek officials and refugees is running out; the veneer of civility can't last forever. On Sunday, a group of about 300 refugees camped at a nearby gas station tried a more extreme attention-getting tactic: They shut down the main highway.
"We don't want to stay here," Hussein, a 25-year-old refugee from Aleppo said as scores sat down in the middle of the road and traffic began backing up on both ends. "We don't want any food, any drink we just want to pass - just to go."
Greek police looked on patiently and made calls to their headquarters for instructions. After about 30 minutes protesters agreed to end the spectacle and returned to their camp where about 2,000 were sheltered in UN refugee agency tents.
Traffic resumed with one truck driver cursing loudly out the window in Greek.