Idomeni Railway Station at the Greece and Macedonian Border
Maz Saleem reports from Idomeni in the second of three diary excerpts from the front line of the refugee crisis
Idomeni is a small village in Greece, near the border with the Republic of Macedonia, approximately a three-hour drive from Thessoniliki airport. The Idomeni camp, though unofficial, has over 12,000 refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq and Pakistan. This camp is based on a railway track. The refugees have staged a protest on the tracks and have vowed not to move until Macedonia opens its borders and lets them continue their journey.
I am not too sure where to start. What we witnessed on the frontline was truly horrific, especially the sheer brutality displayed by the Macedonian authorities towards the refugees. The agreement between the EU and Turkey is beginning to produce its first devastating effects. As soon as I arrived at Idomeni with John and Paul from Refugee Support, a refugee came running up to us and showed us a video on his phone of heavy tear gassing. We were not too sure what he was saying, but, as soon as we entered the camp, we suddenly understood. We could see a heavy bombardment of tear gas from the Macedonian side of the border.
The refugees were being terrorised with tear gas, huge rubber bullets, stun grenades and water cannons, and Medical San Frontier (MSF) reported that they had seen refugees as young as sixteen with wounds from beatings. Clearly they were just standing up for their basic human rights! MSF reported over 300 refugees injured which included babies, young children and pregnant women. I couldn’t help but think that what I was witnessing had echoes of the 1930s.
My heart raced as we watched from the frontline the heavy smog of tear gas engulfing the crowds of refugees. I remember looking up and thinking this is a war zone; it was truly unbelievable. The majority of refugees were choking from the gas and screaming in pain. Eventually it reached us, and I couldn’t believe the immense pain I was in. My face was stinging and my eyes were burning. I grabbed onto Paul’s arm, and we ran for cover along with the thousands of refugees.
The majority of tear gas canisters thrown by the Macedonian authorities had expiry dates from 1996—how inhumane and disgraceful. They were firing indiscriminately, and the smell had actually reached the Idomeni village. I thought to myself, ‘I really don’t understand how this is allowed. Isn’t so much teargas inside the Greek territory a violation of human rights and international law?’
Refugees were fainting from the tear gas and chemicals. The atmosphere was like a war zone. It made me think of what the Palestinians must go through every day of their lives. The Macedonian authorities were throwing way too deep into Greek territory, and, when they opened fire, they ran onto Greek land and chased refugees with guns. They were firing big plastic bullets. The screams and shouting from children was deafening. A stampede took place on the tracks where thousands of refugees are living in makeshift tents. It was total chaos as people ran for their lives. MSF reported that some refugees were crushed. It was truly horrific.
The unrest reportedly began after a group of refugees approached the fence to ask Macedonian border guards to open it and let them pass. The Macedonian police used tear gas, stun grenades, plastic bullets and a water cannon to repel the refugees, many of whom responded by throwing stones over the fence at police. The Greek police observed from their side of the frontier but did not intervene. The clashes were rumoured to have begun because refugees were responding to an Arabic language flyer distributed in the camp the day before urging people to attempt to breach the fence Sunday morning and ‘go to Macedonia on foot’.
Greece has criticised the Macedonian police response as excessive. Giorgos Kyritsis, a spokesman for the government’s special commission on refugees, said Macedonian forces had deployed an ‘indiscriminate use of chemicals, plastic bullets and stun grenades against vulnerable people’. But he said blame for the trouble had to be shared with those in the camp spreading rumours of border openings.
Many refugees expressed confusion over the situation, unaware that European Union governments support Macedonia’s decision in early March to block the refugee flow from northern Greece. The refugees seemed reluctant to accept Greek offers of better accommodation far away from their muddy, cold border encampment.
‘Europe tells everyone to come, but Macedonia has shut down its borders’, said Hassan Mohamed, a 19-year-old Kurd from Aleppo who has been at the Idomeni camp for two months alongside his mother.
The planned deportation of thousands of refugees on Greek islands back to nearby Turkey has now been suspended because Greek officials have been overwhelmed by the volume of asylum applications.
Idomeni felt like a war zone. The squalid conditions here I will never forget. We must remember every human being has a basic human right to feel safe and live in safe and sanitary conditions. The train lines here are blocked, and the farms are occupied. One local expressed his distress:
‘We can see the children are not in school, they are sick and are getting weaker—we feel for them. As far as we know, the borders are not going to open. This camp is dangerous for many involved. There are smugglers and thieves, women being abused and far too little security. Every day longer that people stay and don’t register, the harder their registration process gets and the higher their chances of involving smugglers'.
The dreadful scenes we witnessed at Idomeni will be etched in my mind forever. The brutality from the Macedonian authorities is an absolute disgrace. I still cannot fathom how the Greek authorities could have allowed the Macedonians to fire so much teargas inside Greek territory—a violation of human rights and international law. The Greek authorities stood back and watched the Macedonian authorities chase refugees onto Greek territory with weapons, shooting indiscriminately at them with huge rubber bullets.
Greece is dealing with an unprecedented situation; they are doing the best they can for a country with an economic crisis on their hands. Especially whilst the rest of Europe looks on quite happily knowing that this is not happening in their country. Human trafficking, child abduction and organ harvesting are very real issues. We need to continue to put pressure on the European Union to open the borders. Refugees are human beings, not animals. The UK is the fifth richest country in the world and has said it will only take 20,000 refugees over five years.
We need to continue the fight to get all refugees the valid paperwork to travel freely and enter the countries they need to get too. Compassion does not go hand-in-hand with convenience. Refugees need help today, now, not tomorrow!
Read the first of Maz's diary excerpts.