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Europe's first favela

Pangiotis Kouparanis / groApril 8, 2016

The makeshift Idomeni refugee camp is developing more and more fixed infrastructures. An increasing number of refugees are moving there - as are smugglers. Panagiotis Kouparanis reports from Idomeni.

Refugees in Idomeni
Image: DW/P. Kouparanis

It looks like a ritual: Every morning, three or four buses go to Idomeni. At first they park at the beginning of a tarred road leading to the refugee camp and wait. In the afternoon they usually drive away empty. If they are carrying a few passengers, then they are often families who hope to find better conditions in the region's state refugee camps.

The number of people departing is much lower than the number of new arrivals. Every day, the refugee camp continues to expand in all directions. The only barrier is the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia's border fence. Not only are more tents being pitched on fields, but the camp is also developing more and more infrastructural elements, despite the absence of state supervision.

Nongovernmental organizations give the refugees food; they hand out clothing and blankets and provide medical care. The first babies have already been born in Idomeni, and more women are ready to give birth soon, says a Czech doctor. Volunteers organize child care duties. They also run a tea house and an outdoor disco every evening, where Arab pop music is played. In the camp, the trade of goods is flourishing. Refugees act as traveling merchants: They sell oil, fruit, cigarettes, batteries and camping gas stoves.

Foreign aid organizations hire local workers and pay them to clean the camps. Also, a growing number of toilets are being set up, as well as makeshift showers made of tin sheets, wooden boards or other materials. Benches are built out of branches and canvas covers are mounted on stakes to make canopies for sun protection during the day. It is only a matter of time before the first barracks are built. If it comes to that, then one can call Idomeni the EU's first favela, or slum. With a population of 13,000 to 15,000 inhabitants, Idomeni has become the second-largest city in the northern Greek district of Kilkis.

Griechenland Flüchtlinge im Flüchtlingslager in Idomeni
This refugee is selling whatever he canImage: DW/P. Kouparanis

Western Europe for 1,500 euros

If estimates by Greece's government are correct, the number of people at the Idomeni camp has dropped to just below 11,300. Nongovernmental organizations and Greek observers who have been to the camp claim the figures are wrong, although there is no reason to suspect the Greek authorities of fraudulent intent.

The numbers are based on the number of people who arrive at the camp and voluntarily register at the temporary police station, but not everyone registers. Among the latter are the twenty-year-olds Ahmed and Abdulhamid from the Syrian city of Homs. Like almost everybody one speaks to at the camp, they firmly believe that the Macedonian border will open at some point; they just have to persevere, no matter how long it takes. It seems like they do not want to miss the moment the border reopens.

Holding out in Idomeni is not an option for Diana and Anouar from Aleppo. They did not come to Europe to live in refugee camps like the Syrians in Turkey or Lebanon, says Diana indignantly in fluent English. "Our future in Syria lies behind us; we want to build a new one somewhere else." And what if peace were to be restored? "Excuse me, peace in Syria?" she asked.

They will not apply for asylum in Greece, as the country has its own problems. She also does not want to be accepted to the EU relocation program only to "to be sent to Hungary."

Europe is supposedly involved in the Syrian civil war in the name of freedom and human rights. She does not demand more than that for her family: to live in freedom in a stable country. To her, that is the Netherlands.

And what about Germany? She says no: The mood there is not the best for refugees at the moment. However, the fact is that the borders to Europe are sealed. Not for everyone, says Anouar. If you can raise 5,000 euros, then you can get from Turkey to Italy. As many others in Idomeni confirm, smugglers charge 1,500 euros to bring a person to an EU state via Macedonia. What will Diana and Anouar do? "We will not remain in Idomeni for long," says Diana.

Demonstration gegen Migranten in Idomeni
Greek farmers protested against refugees in IdomeniImage: picture-alliance/AA

Many people will end up staying. Either they do not want to brave another journey or they have simply run out of money. In light of rising spring temperatures, the situation in the camp is becoming all the more critical. The health authorities in the region speak of a "ticking bomb." They fear the spread of epidemics. Apart from hepatitis A, scabies is on the rise. Reasons for this are waterlogging, decomposing waste, dirt lying around and the "dubious quality" of groceries supplied by volunteers. Several days ago, the distribution of spoiled food prompted a demonstration in the camp.

The state should have intervened by now, but nothing has happened. The government says that force is not being used; it advocates persuasive efforts. Yet government agency workers and interpreters should actually go to Idomeni and try to convince the refugees to move to the state camp. That has not happened yet. Zainab, a young Syrian woman, thinks there is a reason behind this. She feels that people who want to go to Europe are being discouraged and that they now get the message. "Stay where you are" is the advice that she and everyone she knows in Idomeni give their friends and family in Syria.