More than 60,000 refugees have already fled to Europe this year. But on the "Balkan Route," they're encountering ever-more obstacles. A Greek fuel station symbolizes them better than most, DW's Nemanja Rujevic reports.
Reham Amairy can rattle off a rather long list of all the nasty elements she's fled from in recent weeks: the so-called "Islamic State" terror militia, various rebel groups, the Syrian regime. All of them are enemies of ordinary people, according to the 23-year-old Palestinian, who's gathered rather too much refugee experience in her short life. She grew up in the Yarmouk Camp, a district and unofficial "refugee camp" in the south of Damascus populated by Palestinians.
She tells me of a dreadful night on the Aegean Sea, when waves sought to swallow up her little boat. But right now, the only thing Reham's trying to escape is the icy Balkan winter wind.
"The situation's dire here. It's so cold," she says, burying her head deeper into her furry jacket hood. "We've been waiting here, sleeping in buses, for three days now."
Hot soup on hand, after a struggle
The "here" of which Reham speaks is the suddenly-renowned filling station on the European route E75 - a series of main roads starting in Greece's Sitia and ending in Vardo in Norway. The station's around 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) from Greece's border with Macedonia.
Buses and coaches, parked nose to tail, fill the rest area. They number more than 80, and house roughly 4,000 asylum-seekers. Refugees are driven in here almost non-stop from Athens, even though the Macedonian border police frequently block the way north. "That's not Greece's fault," a policeman wrapped in a scarf says. Rather, he says that Macedonian officials have simply broken contact.
The government in Skopje issues its own statements from time to time explaining why the border's so often closed. Sometimes they'll talk of a train problem in Slovenia, or perhaps a taxi drivers' blockade - as the drivers, who until recently were delighted to assist these long-distance customers, now complain that the migrants are almost exclusively using rail or bus links. How many people are let through on their way north and west, and at what times, are details that nobody on the petrol forecourt really seems to know for sure.
Jakob's trying to solve this riddle too. The 25-year-old - tall, blonde, his clothes dirty from work - came here from Leipzig to help out at the gas station. "I became aware that state aid and NGO's initiatives weren't really reaching places like this satisfactorily," he says. "Also, I wanted to see what was really going on here."
Back home, Jakob's part of the so-called anarchists' scene, but he says with a smile that the same doesn't apply to all the helpers on site. Volunteers have traveled from the Netherlands, Switzerland, even from New Zealand. They're serving homemade soup in plastic cups out of the back of their beaten-up old camper van; hundreds of refugees are waiting patiently in line. Strange as it might seem, the hot soup has its own back-story - it took some time before the leaseholder at the service station permitted the serving of hot food on the property.
"The ole lady wanted to cash in on her potato chips," the volunteers say sarcastically. To be fair, 'the ole lady' does seem a shrewd businesswoman. She hurriedly brought in extra help, who now try to keep up with the refugees' orders for chicken gyros and sweets. One corner of the tight space was converted into a small store - where winter coats are an understandably big seller. The prices, however, seem less tailored toward the new customers. A chicken gyros portion with fries sets you back 7 euros ($7.84) - enough to stun any Greek punter - while a bowl of soup's priced at 6 euros.
A routine, even here
Outside, dozens of campfires burn, kept alive by enthusiastic youngsters impatiently piling on the firewood. The boys play football or volleyball; some seek shelter from the wind in the luggage hatches low on the coaches - where it's tolerably warm, but not stuffy like it is inside the vehicles themselves.
Two men lay out a blanket, and then take their shoes off, ready to pray. If the so-called "Balkan Route" shows anything, it's that a routine quickly develops wherever asylum-seekers are stranded in large numbers. This routine surely has its ugly sides, like the mother changing her baby's diaper on the asphalt because she's got no better options available. There are dozens of parents taking their kids to the mobile Doctors Without Borders station, because their colds and sniffles really should have been treated some time ago.
"Many of these people have no idea that they won't get through. They only find this out on the border," German volunteer Jakob tells me. He's referring to anybody who's not Syrian, Iraqi, or Afghan - who Balkan countries then classify as "economic migrants." Furthermore, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria reportedly agreed in Skopje on Wednesday on a plan to only allow asylum-seekers with "valid travel documents" to pass. It was not immediately clear whether that would really exclude anybody with lost, stolen or expired passports.
So, what should the people who can go no further do?
"Many of them try to cross the border in the countryside or the woods," Jakob explains. "As for the families with small children, who can't do this? Well, I guess there are always buses back to Athens." Europe is failing these people intentionally, to keep them out, in the opinion of the anarcho-aid-worker from Leipzig.
Reham Amairy is not such a political animal. The Palestinian holds both a Syrian passport and the iron-clad intention to make it to Hamburg, where her brother received asylum long ago. "I'm now homeless, and am hoping to find a new home and peace," she says. As heavy raindrops begin to dampen the hullaballoo at the service station, Reham explains how she would like to continue her study of English literature once in Hamburg. Or perhaps seek work as a nurse; she says she'd like that, too.