Yannis Behrakis/Reuters

Refugees in Balkan limbo as crisis deepens EU divisions

Thousands are stranded in wintry weather as Balkan states tighten borders after Paris attacks

IDOMENI, Greece — Through many years spent studying English, persevering as a teacher on a $60 monthly wage and enduring the strictures of Iran’s ruling regime and her devoutly Muslim parents, Elham dreamed of escaping to Europe — but not like this.

The language teacher from Shiraz was one of thousands of people now trapped on the border between Greece and Macedonia this week by the latest spasm in Europe’s erratic handling of its worst refugee emergency since World War II.

The Nov. 13 attacks in Paris transformed a huge political, economic and humanitarian challenge into an acute security crisis and widened already major divisions between European Union states over how to handle an influx of refugees that the onset of winter has failed to halt.

The suspicion that one of the Paris attackers was a Syrian who came to Europe among refugees deepened distrust of the new arrivals and turned more EU states against German-led efforts to welcome people fleeing the world’s war zones.

In the week after the carnage in the French capital, which left 130 dead, several countries on the so-called Balkan route into Europe closed their borders to all refugees other than Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis, who have the best chance of receiving asylum in the EU.

Refugees demonstrate as they wait to cross the Greek-Macedonian border near Idomeni on Nov. 25, 2015.
Sakis Mitrolidis / AFP / Getty Images

Not for the first time in this crisis, however, states took drastic action without warning or coordination with each other; they left thousands of people stranded on remote frontiers with inadequate facilities, no idea of what to do next and a rising sense of panic as the first snow of winter fell.

“I’ve never been as cold as I was last night – I didn’t sleep for a moment,” said Elham, as with numb fingers she counted the hems of five sweaters that she wore in brightly colored layers under a purple overcoat.

“These are all the clothes I have,” the 30-year-old said, as she prepared to spend a fourth night in the misty fields outside the Greek village of Idomeni, where for months refugees have trudged along a rusty rail track into Macedonia.

Now riot police block the way to suspected “economic migrants,” leaving people from as far afield as Bangladesh, Morocco, Nepal and Cameroon stranded here and at borders further along the “Balkan route” — in Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia — that asylum seekers cross on their way to Austria and Germany, which are more welcoming and accommodating to refugees.

“I left home alone, but now I am travelling with other Iranians that I met on the way,” said Elham, who declined to give her surname because she did not tell her parents that she was leaving for Europe.

“I took a plane to Turkey and paid a smuggler for a place on a boat to Greece. We got lost and were at sea for six hours,” she said, shivering at the memory.

Elham described how she had thought of leaving Iran for three years, in frustration at its grinding poverty, the restrictions imposed by its authoritarian rulers and her family’s adherence to a deeply conservative interpretation of Islam.

“My father is very religious and won’t let me go out alone, and in my country they can put you in jail for being out with a boy. And I am so poor and my wage is so low, but my father gives me nothing, while he gives his son a shop, a house and money. Iranians love their sons and hate their daughters,” Elham said.

All those now stranded on the Balkan route tell harrowing tales of how they got here, but most insist the risk was worth it to escape the ills that blight their homelands — economic collapse, violence, oppression and corruption.

“What if a country has no jobs, no food to eat, a government that steals everything? This is life in Morocco,” said Mohammed Nour from Casablanca.

“We’ve been stuck here for four days — it’s freezing and the weather’s getting worse,” said Emin Yassin, another Moroccan who is sharing a light tent with Nour and several of their countrymen.

“We want to go to Germany, where people aren’t scared of Muslims. In France now, after what happened in Paris, they think every Muslim is a terrorist,” said Nour.

“But we only want to work and have a decent life. I speak three languages, I was a banker in Morocco. I won’t ask for anything — just a chance to work.”

A stranded Iranian refugee on hunger strike on rail tracks in front of Macedonian riot police at the borderline between Greece and Macedonia, near the Greek village of Idomeni on Nov. 25, 2015.
Yannis Behrakis / Reuters

At Idomeni, scores of frustrated asylum seekers have created a makeshift protest camp by draping cardboard placards over the barriers that block them.

“Freedom of movement,” “Stop Racism” and “Let us go” read some of the signs, while others call for help from Germany and its leader Angela Merkel.

Dozens of times a day, riot police hold them back and lead Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans from arriving buses over the border into Macedonia, where they are put on trains to Serbia and a little closer to a future in western or northern Europe.

On Tuesday, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon criticized the border controls in a call for Europe to respond to the refugee crisis with “compassion, solidarity and shared responsibility.”

“Profiling asylum seekers on the basis of their alleged nationality infringes on the human right of all people to seek asylum, irrespective of their nationality, and to have their individual cases heard,” he said.

Amid regular scuffles at Idomeni, frustrated refugees have blocked the rail line and declared a hunger strike, and several Iranians have sewn their lips shut.

“The risk of possible conflict between refugees and migrants, the migrants and police and army, and between migrants and local people is rated as high,” said Macedonia’s president, Gjorgje Ivanov.

“Any increase in these [refugee] numbers will increase permanent and direct threats and risks for the national security of Macedonia,” he added.

Claims from some EU leaders that this influx of mostly Muslim refugees threatens Europe’s safety and traditional values gained resonance with the Paris attacks.

In comments characteristic of the views of several central European leaders, Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, said three days after the Paris attacks that “we don’t know how many terrorists have arrived with the migrants and how many are coming day after day.”

The bloodshed prompted Poland and Bulgaria to join Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic in opposing a German-led quota scheme to share refugees among EU states, and Austria and Slovenia had earlier followed Hungary in building fences along stretches of their borders.

Now Macedonia is doing the same — with razor wire and other equipment donated by Hungary — as EU members and Balkan states take unilateral steps that threaten the bloc’s already fraying plans for a coordinated response.

At a series of emergency summits in recent months, the EU laid out urgent steps to tackle the crisis — but implementation has been pitiful.

Fewer than half the staff offered by member states to boost EU border protection have been provided, and of 160,000 refugees scheduled for relocation from Greece and Italy, only 158 have been moved. EU countries have contributed less than one-quarter of the $2.9 billion they pledged for refugee agencies.

Balkan and central European states blame the EU for inaction and insist they must act independently — deepening a crisis of confidence within a bloc that was badly shaken by recent threats to the Greek economy and the euro currency.

The refugee crisis is now a battleground for the perennial debate over the need for “more or less Europe” — whether EU problems can be solved by boosting the role of the bloc’s administration or by giving power back to national governments.           

Without synchronized action, the EU’s treasured Schengen system of passport-free travel will collapse, warned the president of the European Council.

“Saving Schengen is a race against time,” Donald Tusk said this month.

“Without effective border control, the Schengen rules will not survive.”

Europe is divided and paralyzed, and the first victims of its malaises are the thousands now trapped at places like Idomeni — with no road ahead or back, and their future as bleak as winter descends on parts of the Balkans.

“We’re extremely worried about the latest developments and fear that people will be stranded without any assistance, shelter and food, just as winter sets in,” said Stephane Moissaing, the head of mission in Serbia for Doctors without Borders, known by its French acronym MSF.

The United Nations refugee agency said the new Balkan border restrictions “were creating an increasingly untenable situation from every point of view — humanitarian, legal and also safety related, not least in light of falling temperatures and the risks for children and others with specific needs.”

“These measures by states are creating tension at border crossings and a domino effect, leaving in total limbo some refugees and migrants stranded at different border points," warned Adrian Edwards, a spokesman for the U.N. agency.

At Idomeni one recent afternoon, as refugees huddled around small, smoky fires to keep warm, U.N. staff tackled problems created further south on the Balkan route.

One Syrian man had been registered in Greece as Moroccan, and was being stopped from entering Macedonia; several other people who said they were Syrians said they had lost their papers on the treacherous sea crossing from Turkey and were now stalled at the border.

“They traffickers took our bags and threw them off the boat,” said Mamoud Tantouri, a Palestinian-Syrian refugee.

“For four days here we’ve been given no information, no clear answers — if we have another day of this, we’ll just pack up and go.”

Like Tantouri, most of those stuck at Idomeni said they would never turn back, but would only seek another route into the EU.

“We left Nepal about one month ago,” said Dipendra Chaudari, sitting beside a meager fire with four friends who had accompanied him on a journey of over 4,000 miles from Kathmandu, across Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“We had a terrible earthquake in April, and lots of people in Nepal have no money, no job, no house. Many people are leaving — there is no hope there.”

Some, like the Nour and Yassin from Morocco, believe they would be put in prison if they went back now.             

“If we have to, we’ll walk through the mountains to Germany, or find someone to smuggle us — everyone here will do that.”

Until this month, Balkan states were operating a relatively smooth transport system for refugees, in which buses and trains took them between transit camps and ultimately delivered them to Austria. Most moved on to Germany.

Now, in the fields and country lanes around Idomeni, a sight not seen since the chaos of early summer has reappeared — gaggles of refugees looking for a way to sneak past border guards through forest and field.

It is inevitable, aid groups and migration experts say, that the refugees will now take longer and riskier routes into the EU, and pay traffickers to smuggle them through.

“I don’t have any money, but those who do are looking for smugglers,” said Elham.

“My friends with the little children tried to cross the border last night, but police sent them back,” she added.

“Now they are looking for a smuggler to help them. Most people here will do anything to stay in Europe – we’ve come too far to go back.”

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