Dark nights of anguish for refugees trapped at Greek border

As European leaders pile pressure on Greece to stop arrivals from Turkey, hundreds of refugees and migrants are scattered along the country's border area, preparing to risk dangerous journeys through Macedonia and on to northern Europe.

IDOMENI, Greece // Bleak winter days quickly give way to cold, ink-black nights along the Greece-Macedonia border. In a forest inside Greece, off the road leading to Macedonia, campfires and smartphone screens light up the faces of people sitting under trees or inside derelict cabins.

Unable to pass the border legally – like the thousands of Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis who move across daily – these people are among hundreds of refugees and migrants scattered throughout the frontier area, preparing to risk dangerous journeys through Macedonia and on to northern Europe.

One young man busily lines his boots with plastic shopping bags ahead of attempting the four-day trek through Macedonia to Serbia.

“If the regular police catch you it’s all right. But if you run they beat you. Sometimes they shoot at you too. If the army catches you they take everything: your money, your mobile,” he says.

Marwan is a veteran of three failed attempts to evade capture while crossing Macedonia’s mountainous terrain. Like others in the forest he sees no option but to make another effort.

“Of course I will try again because I don’t have anything. If you wait to die, you die. If you try and try you will reach your goals. If you don’t try you won’t reach them.”

His last bid to reach Serbia ended excruciatingly close to the border.

“We walked for three and a half days and were caught 30 minutes from Serbia,” he recalled. “We were very hungry so went to a supermarket to buy something and the police arrested us crossing the street. They sent us back to the Greek border.”

A Palestinian from the Gaza Strip, Marwan is rendered virtually stateless with no legal option but to return to the besieged and war ravaged enclave. The oppressive hopelessness perceived in such a future compels him to risk everything.

“When I crossed the sea from Turkey I thought if I die it’s finished, if I go I have a new life,” he says. “To go back to Gaza I must arrive at Cairo airport where I will be put in prison for days or months until they open the border [with Gaza] at Rafah. Return me to Turkey and I will go to prison because I cannot get a visa. I came [to Europe] because I had hope for a new life.”

That hope drives those in the forest along with the thousands who continue moving along the Balkans route.

But after 1.1 million asylum seekers arrived in Germany alone last year, and with 76,000 new arrivals in Greece so far in 2016, Europe’s welcoming approach to refugees – as offered to Syrians by German chancellor Angela Merkel in September – has been replaced with a sense of panic.

Talk among European leaders has shifted to preventing the collapse of the EU’s Schengen Area of open borders and pressure is mounting on Greece to stop arrivals.

“Schengen is on the brink of collapse … If we cannot protect the external EU border, the Greek Turkish border, than the Schengen external border will move toward central Europe,” Austria’s interior minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner threatened after a meeting of EU ministers in January. “Greece has one of the biggest navies in Europe. It’s a myth that the Greek-Turkish border cannot be protected.”

Responding to the threat Greece’s migration minister, Yannis Mouzalas, refused to tolerate the notion of turning boatloads of refugees back to Turkey.

“We do not intend to become a cemetery of souls here,” he says. “We do not have time to experiment with things that will only worsen the trauma.”

In November, Slovenia, Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia began limiting entry of asylum seekers to Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis, leaving thousands of people stranded in Greece. Last month Macedonia imposed several day-long border closures to refugees including those from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Politics compounds uncertainty for people arriving by bus from Athens at the Idomeni refugee crossing. An Arabic-speaking Greek policeman checks documents. Those allowed to pass walk through a buffer zone to a reception area inside Macedonia before travelling to Serbia.

Those without correct documents or suspected of having fake papers are made to wait until each crowd passes before being led to a bus travelling back to Athens under police escort. The people passing don’t look at them.

Among one group that is turned back is Rashid from Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus that has borne some of the worst excesses of the Syrian conflict. He produced a registration paper with his nationality marked “Palestinian”. Had he told the registration official on his arrival in Greece that he was “Syrian” then he would have been allowed into Macedonia.

“I didn’t know about this,” he protests to police, producing a mobile phone to show a photo of his Syrian passport. “I left [the passport] behind when I fled.”

Told to be quiet he is taken to a waiting bus heading back to Athens.

Stella Nanou, from the UN’s refugee agency, estimates that 150 people are rejected entry to Macedonia each day and fears border restrictions merely provide business to people smugglers.

“We are very concerned about the reactivation of the smuggling networks, especially at the northern borders of Greece,” Ms Nanou said. “It is fertile ground and smuggling networks are flourishing. They take advantage of the dead end these people are in. People are already very traumatised and exhausted and this poses a physical danger to them.”

Inside the Macedonian border, at a reception centre for the Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi refugees, Jasmin Redzepi from the aid group Legis, co-ordinates a team of workers and volunteers distributing clothing. He said smugglers arrange to meet people crossing into Macedonia and drive them to the Serbian border.

“The refugees will always keep trying to cross. They have no other choice,” he said. “There is a good network of smugglers which has been reactivated by the border restriction and we hear evidence of it daily in the police reports. They transport them by different roads and police are targeting them on the road.”

Paying people smugglers can be a risky business with no guarantees. Shehab, a Pakistani waiting in the Idomeni forest, said he was unsure if the €1,000 (Dh4,100) he paid to a smuggler would be money well spent. “He said somebody would be waiting in Macedonia with a car. Maybe he comes with a car or maybe he won’t come. I don’t know.”

According to Ms Nanou, the only legal options for people denied entry to Macedonia are to apply for asylum in Greece, a country racked by economic crisis and suffering 25 per cent unemployment, or voluntarily return home through an International Orgnanisation for Migration repatriation programme.

“After that, when their documents expire, the Greek state has the right to detain people and deport them to their country of origin or back to Turkey,” Ms Nanou said. “The other option, is the irregular one and that is where people resort to smuggling networks.”

That option compels the walkers in Idomeni’s forest to press on. At dusk, on a recent evening, one group of 20 Pakistanis, mostly men but including a woman and child, rose to make their way to the forest’s edge and take their chances on crossing to Macedonia. Watching them depart was a group of Iranian men, ready with backpacks to leave for the border at a moment’s notice. A police raid in the area the previous day, in which 20 migrants were arrested, had put people on alert.

“If the police come we are ready to go, we run. Many people were here yesterday but went further into the forest,” says one of the men. “We have to try until we make it. Tonight or maybe tomorrow.”