Peace becomes a struggle at Macedonia's border
NGOs plead for government assistance as tensions boil over between stranded migrants and Macedonia completes a three-kilometer fence along the Greek border. Diego Cupolo reports from Idomeni, Greece.
Stranded in Idomeni
Squatting behind a Macedonian border marker, Pakistani brothers, Hasan (left) and Mohammed Segir, attempt to light a fire using a garbage bag. They've been stuck at an improvised refugee camp in Idomeni, Greece, ever since Macedonia, Serbia and Slovenia stopped accepting migrants from "non-conflict zones" on November 18. The decision has stranded between 1,500-2,000 people at this site.
Out in the cold
Though Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has built large tents and heated structures to shelter about 2,000 people, many remain outdoors. "More than 1,000 people a day are sleeping outside with 6 degree temperatures [43 degrees Fahrenheit]," said Antonis Rigas, Idomeni field coordinator for MSF. "We asked the state for another site where we can double our capacity, but they haven't responded."
A Moroccan teenager waits for the border to reopen for all migrants, a scenario Rigas said was unlikely. "We are requesting the state sends at least three representatives to help us manage the camp," he said. "NGOs are completely running this place right now, and it's not up to MSF to take the place of the government."
Separation by nationality
At the moment, several thousand Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans are passing into Macedonia on a daily basis, frustrating those left behind. "We don't want to go to Europe illegally, we want to go legally," said Shyamal Rabbi, a 32-year-old Bangladeshi shopkeeper. "We are humans and we also have human rights. If three nations can go, we also can go."
Tension between asylum-seekers
As difficult circumstances lead to anger, fights have become a common occurrence in Idomeni. Above, Raj, a Nepalese who did not provide a last name, said an Iranian punched him during a confrontation inside a shelter. On Friday, doctors with Medecins du Monde Greece treated two North African males with knife wounds. Food distribution has also created several skirmishes.
Protests, once peaceful, turn violent
Last week, stranded migrants sewed their lips shut and went on hunger strikes, but peaceful protests were short lived as clashes with Macedonian police broke out both Thursday and Saturday. "People are very angry now," said Fatini Kelektsoglou, a coordinator for Praksis in Idomeni. "They haven't had a shower in almost two weeks and some are drinking during the day."
"We go from peace to chaos in 30 minutes and back again," said Alexandros Voulgaris, Idomeni team leader for UNHCR, "We cannot plan. It's an emergency situation, so we just try to keep people safe." Voulgaris said he is trying to convince refugees to go to Athens, where they can stay in an Olympic stadium-turned-refugee shelter.
'They want us to go to war'
Rami Altahari, a 22-year old student from Yemen, holds a phone showing his bombarded neighborhood in Sanaa. He's travelling with 11 other Yemenis because they were pressured to join the Houthi militia. "They want us to go to war, but we will not fight," he said. "The Saudis will kill us, so we wait here until they open the border."
The next Calais
Members of a Greek workers' union distributed supplies on Saturday. "This will turn into Calais if we don't move fast," Nikitas Kanakis, president of Medecins du Monde Greece. "There aren't enough facilities here for everyone and I'm afraid people will try to find new routes over the winter. You know that smugglers can be very creative."
'What is the plan B?'
Macedonia completed a three-kilometer border fence near Idomeni on Sunday. "Everyone from around the world is here trying to help these people, except the Greek state," Kanakis said. "We are afraid the border may close completely in the next few days. Even if we transfer everyone to Athens, what happens after? What is the plan B?"