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Asylum-seekers left in the cold

Diego Cupolo, IdomeniJanuary 23, 2016

Pending revisions to refugee policies across the EU are causing a series of unpredictable border openings and closures in the Balkans, leaving asylum-seekers in the cold. Diego Cupolo reports from Idomeni, Greece.

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Image: DW/D. Cupolo

Unexplained and sporadic border closures have rippled across the Balkans this week, leaving thousands of asylum-seekers waiting 14-24 hours at gas stations throughout northern Greece, where they are exposed to a winter wind so frigid it has a name: Vardaris.

Commonly referenced in history books, Vardaris is a concentrated ravine wind blowing south from snowy Macedonian mountaintops into the Greek valleys below and out to the Aegean Sea.

Now, as European nations consider tighter border controls and possible quotas to rein in the ongoing refugee crisis, the relentless wind continues to blow past all boundaries – open and closed – presenting those stuck between nations with new challenges and, at times, frostbite.

Lack of information

"What time opens the border?" asks Gholam Sakhi, an Afghan shoemaker waiting at a gas station 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) south of the Greek-Macedonian border crossing in Idomeni. "Why the border not open? Is taxi to border, okay?"

After waiting more than eight hours in the same place, Sakhi holds the youngest of his four children while asking questions no one can seem to answer. Since Tuesday, the Idomeni crossing has been opened for a few hours a day, sometimes in the afternoon, other times at 4 a.m., but always unexpectedly and without prior announcement.

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Gas stations are a welcome shelter for refugeesImage: DW/D. Cupolo

"None of the NGOs here know what's happening," said Gemma Gillie, a communications officer for Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Idomeni. "The police do not provide information and we have to base our response as much on rumors as we base it on facts. We only know gas stations are being used as prolonged pit stops between Athens and the border."

Camp re-opened

After taking a ferry from the Greek islands to Athens, asylum-seekers pay 25-50 euros ($30-54) for private buses to the Macedonian border. Normally, the trip takes seven hours, but lately it has been taking much longer, with stops in gas stations that sometimes last from one day to the next, said Gillie.

The slowdown in transit has prompted Greek police to re-open the Idomeni transit camp, which was closed on December 9 after weeks of protests following the decision to filter refugees based on nationality. For the two months, passage has been given strictly to people from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Starting this week, border agents are further filtering entrants based on final destinations. People who say they are going to Germany or Austria will be allowed to continue, while those who mention other countries will be turned back to Athens.

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An Afghan girl walks past graffiti left in Idomeni during sometimes violent protests that shut down the camp in DecemberImage: DW/D. Cupolo

To enforce such measures, Frontex officials and German police officers have joined Greek authorities in Idomeni. After more than a month of disuse, the heated tents and facilities in the camp are operating once again.

Children at risk

Still, every day, between 1,000-3,000 asylum-seekers are waiting at gas stations with limited interior space throughout Greece, said Celine Gagne, field manager for the charity Save the Children in Idomeni, noting that 40 percent of those currently on the refugee trail are children.

"We see many more women and children passing through and think families are now trying to join the men that passed in the fall," Gagne said. "This is quite concerning considering the low temperatures and extremely difficult journey ahead of them."

Respiratory illness, hypothermia, and frostbite have become common ailments among asylum-seekers as a result of the January weather. But for Kalliopi Mitelineos, a victim identification specialist for A21, a non-profit organization that focuses on international human trafficking, the rising presence of smugglers along the Greek-Macedonian border is more worrisome.

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A man lies in a sleeping bag to take cover from the cold wind at a gas station 20 km south of the Macedonian borderImage: DW/D. Cupolo

Of the many trafficking techniques along the refugee trail, the most prevalent exchange is that of sexual favors, particularly in Turkey, said Mitelineos. If European borders begin tightening up in the coming months, she expects the practice to become more common in the Balkan region.

"We haven't seen it yet, but it is definitely something we need to monitor and prepare for," Mitelineos said. "Right now, not [many people in the camps] are wondering why a 15-year-old girl is travelling with a middle-aged man who is not her father and why she looks down at the ground and doesn't respond when she is spoken to."

'No rights in Turkey'

Back at the gas station, just 20 kilometers south of the Macedonian border, asylum-seekers take shelter from the Vardaris winds in heated tents provided by MSF. It is 8 p.m., and many have been waiting here since 6:30 in the morning.

Despite the cold, Hesham Noaman, a 26-year-old Syrian Kurd, stands outside without a hat, hands tucked rigidly into his jacket, and smiles optimistically as he talks.

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An Afghan boy takes shelter from the cold wind in the re-opened Idomeni refugee campImage: DW/D. Cupolo

"If we stay here two or three days, that's okay," he says. "Maybe one week will be too much. What can we do?"

Noaman paid $600 (556 euros) to cross from Turkey, a discount rate down from several thousand due to rough winter seas. He hasn't eaten since disembarking from Lesbos and doesn't know where he'll sleep, but after spending seven months in Turkey, he is happy to be Europe.

"I tried to live in Turkey, but it's impossible," Noaman said. "If they know you are Syrian, they treat you like an animal. They are not nice to us."

In the Turkish city of Izmir, Noaman had a construction job where he was paid $10 for a 12-hour workday.

"We are immigrants without rights in Turkey, so if the boss doesn't give you money one day, you can't do anything. You can't complain to anyone."

"This is why I am here."