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Tensions simmer in Idomeni

Diego Cupolo, IdomeniMarch 7, 2016

Faced with three-hour food lines and unpredictable border controls, more than 13,000 people wait at the Greek-Macedonian border and hope to gain passage north. Diego Cupolo reports from Idomeni, Greece.

A man tries to hold his place towards the end of the food line amid a sea of people in Idomeni refugee camp
Image: Diego Cupolo/DW

As the refugee crisis enters a new stage, decisions taken - or not taken - have immediate impact throughout the Balkan route, and nowhere are they felt more sharply than with an elbow jab in the Idomeni food line.

A three-hour wait for egg sandwiches has become customary and people must push, shove and cut their way into line as more than 13,000 asylum-seekers now occupy the Greek-Macedonian border in a camp designed to host 2,500.

"Things are moving gradually and slowly towards a full-blown humanitarian crisis," said Babar Baloch, a spokesperson for the UNHCR. "You can't keep people in such dire conditions and expect them to remain calm."

"This is not a crisis of management but a crisis of solidarity in the European Union," Baloch added.

Following a meeting between Austria and Balkan nations, Macedonian border officials began conducting lengthy interviews to screen refugees and stopped giving passage to Afghans, reducing Macedonia's acceptance rate to 50-250 people per day.

Now, as new arrivals further strain the facilities in Idomeni, those awaiting their fate at the camp have few places to direct their frustration aside from one another and, despite the occasional scuffle, the atmosphere was largely calm in anticipation of Monday's summit.

Intimidation strategies

Hamidullah Hamid, an Afghan from Takhar province, said Syrians have pushed him out of the food line multiple times and his Afghan friends experience daily discrimination in the camp, such as not being allowed to sleep in heated tents, but he remains focused on his goal to reach Germany.

"Syrians give me problems, but I don't fight with them," Hamidullah Hamid explained, crouched by a campfire with a group of friends. "My real problems are with the border and the people that close them, not with the people in the camp."

A group of men start a camp fire in Idomeni refugee camp
Thousands are waiting at IdomeniImage: Diego Cupolo/DW

Stationed at the epicenter of all hostility in the camp, Usama Samha works as an interpreter for Praksis, a Greek NGO that runs the main food distribution area, handing out an average of 2,500 sandwiches per hour.

"Syrians usually come from cities, while Afghans are mountain people, so yes, they fight sometimes for differences in their cultures," Samha said. "But the food is not the issue, what's most important is managing their psychology … Most people are afraid because they don't know what will happen to them."

As a Greek-Palestinian translator, Samha is often the first to hear of problems in the camp, many of which he says stem from actions by Macedonian border agents, who are now receiving assistance from Czech and Austrian officials.

"Yesterday, [the border police] took the papers from a group of Syrians who were eligible to cross and made them kiss their boots because they had videos of them participating in the protest on Monday," Samha said.

The group of Syrians was then beaten and sent back into the camp without their papers, according to Samha. That move was a major setback for the group as undocumented refugees must apply for relocation programs through the UN, a process that can take up to four months.

"These are their intimidation strategies," he continued. "Every day, I hear a similar story."

A Yezidi family from Sinjar, Iraq trims greens collected from a nearby forest to avoid long food lines in Idomeni refugee camp
This Yezidi family from Sinjar, Iraq, collected greens from a nearby forest to avoid the long food lines in the refugee campImage: Diego Cupolo/DW

People trying to cross the Macedonian border must also prove they did not spend more than 30 days both in Turkey and Greece, both considered to be safe countries. Border officials verify travel accounts by looking through call records, as well as photo galleries in mobile phones.

Additionally, people must say they are seeking asylum in Europe, not jobs or reunification with family members - otherwise they are turned back to Greece.

Losing hope

"You can't stop them from coming here. Psychologically they want to be near the border in case it opens for just a brief second," said Jean-Nicolas Dangelser, a distribution manager for Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

Over the weekend, Dangelser oversaw the construction of two new Rubb halls, or large capacity tents, along with dozens of new latrines, anticipating the continuation of new arrivals in the camp.

"I would lose my mind if I were in their situation," he said. "I don't know if they are so desperate that they can't be angry anymore, but I am always surprised when they smile and offer to share their food with us."

A Syrian mother feeds her children as her husband builds a makeshift shelter in Idomeni refugee camp
Volunteers on site estimate one third of the people in the refugee camp are minorsImage: Diego Cupolo/DW

Still, some families have spent more than two weeks in Idomeni, and Dangelser said he has watched their morale drop with time.

"You can see they are losing hope," he said. "The other day, there was a helicopter circling the camp and the mother from one of our case families said she wished it would drop a bomb on the camp so 'we could all die and everybody would be happy.'"

"When you hear that first thing in the morning, you know people are starting to feel like they are losing their chance to keep moving north."

Summing up the situation, Praksis interpreter Samha said the Macedonian border is closing slowly and he expects it to shutter any day.

"You don't need a government announcement to see what is happening," he said. "Austria is reducing its acceptance rate. Greece is building new camps. It's clear."

"And what will happen to these people?" he asked. "Just look at Palestinians. They went to Lebanon, Jordan and Syria and they stayed there. They continued living their lives in their own communities, but ask any family and you will see most of them still have the keys to their homes in Palestine."