Alexandros Avramides / Reuters

Balkan borders no obstacle to refugees fleeing conflicts

Asylum seekers travel from Greece through the Balkans in hopes of reaching more-prosperous EU countries

This is part one in a two-part series. The second part examines the trek asylum seekers make from Macedonia to Serbia and on to Hungary.

IDOMENI, Greece — It was an Eid meal they would long remember but hoped never to repeat.

Hundreds of Muslims, most from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, found themselves marking the end of Ramadan in a patch of parched scrubland beside rusty railway tracks running from Greece into Macedonia.

They gathered at a trestle table laden with pies, cakes, fruit and cold drinks donated by local Greeks, under the shade of a few pines and the unsmiling gaze of three policemen standing 150 feet away, across an invisible international frontier.

For some, this strange and unexpected arrangement posed an excruciating dilemma: Hot, hungry and thirsty as they were, dare they join a line for perhaps the best meal they had seen in weeks and risk missing a chance to dash into the next country on their long trek to Western European?

Hassan hopes to reunite his family in the Netherlands.
Dan McLaughlin

Hassan urged his two sons to go and eat, ran a finger around the collar of his neat checked shirt, damp in the mid-July heat, and watched a gaggle of children charge across the train tracks toward a volunteer handing out pink iced buns.

“I laid and repaired railway lines for 34 years in Syria,” he said. “Now my sons and I are here. Another two sons and my daughter are with my wife in Istanbul because we couldn’t all afford to travel together. Eventually, we will live as a family again — in the Netherlands, inshallah.”

Hassan, a 58-year-old Kurd from the town of Afrin in Aleppo province, paid a man in Istanbul to get him and his boys onto one of many overcrowded boats that illegally make the short but hazardous trip from Izmir in Turkey to Lesbos in Greece. The standard price is $1,000 per person, Hassan and other migrants said. All declined to give their last names for fear of legal problems in the EU or for relatives at home.

“There were 40 people on our little boat, and when we got close to Greece, the guy in charge, who had a gun, jumped into another boat to return to Turkey,” recalled Hannibal, 23, a math teacher from the Syrian capital, Damascus.

“He told us to sink the boat or else the border guards would just put fuel in the engine and send us back. But Greek people helped us and took us to Samos.”

Every day, many hundreds of people from the Middle East arrive on Lesbos, Samos and other Greek islands, where they are registered by police and given a permit to remain temporarily in Greece.

Despite Greece’s membership in the European Union, the migrants quickly move north through Macedonia and Serbia and try to re-enter the EU at unguarded points on Hungary’s border, then travel on to wealthier member states.

This Balkan route is now the most popular way for asylum seekers to reach Western Europe, and it leads them on foot or by bus to Idomeni — the village beyond the pines that hides these migrants and border police from public view.

“The bus driver stopped, pointed this way and told us Macedonia was over here,” said Hannibal, who hopes to settle down in Germany with his fiancée, who is still in Syria. “Now we’ve been waiting 10 hours to cross the border. We tried earlier, but the police hit us with batons. Some people say they’ve been here for three days.”

Such stories were common in early July, when Doctors Without Borders (MSF) reported that some 2,000 migrants were trapped at Idomeni in increasingly squalid conditions as Macedonia struggled to handle a surge in arrivals.

Migrants were terrorized by mafia groups whose henchmen — with the connivance of police — made them pay to cross the woods and fields on the frontier. Some who refused were badly beaten and forced back into Greece.

“Refugees fleeing war and persecution make this journey across the Balkans in the hope of finding safety in Europe, only to find themselves victims of abuse and exploitation and at the mercy of failing asylum systems,” Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty International’s deputy director for Europe and Central Asia, said this month.

Foreign criticism pushed Macedonia on June 18 to allow migrants to apply for 72 hours’ temporary asylum on its border and to use public transportation — lifting a ban that had prompted many to buy bicycles to pedal through the country and to trek along major roads and railway lines, despite 14 Afghans and Somalis being struck and killed by a train in April.

The ban allowed a venal alliance of criminals and police to control the migrants’ entire journey through Macedonia — escorting them in from Greece and out into Serbia, moving them south to north in cars and buses and imprisoning many in guarded houses until they paid the required fee.

“When politicians decide to close a border, all they actually do is give control of it to the mafia and corrupt police and force refugees to pay them much more to get across,” said Vasilis Tsartsanis, a Greek photographer who has been helping migrants at Idomeni for almost a year as well as documenting their ordeal.

Migrants are now given 72 hours to transit Macedonia and may use public transport, and border police seek only to regulate a relentless flow of people that is too powerful to halt — though they still take baton swipes at passing groups.

“Nothing will stop the refugees!” Tsartsanis exclaimed.

“About 800 to 1,000 come through Idomeni each day, and I stay in contact with many by phone and on Facebook. They are all in the EU now. But wouldn’t Europe prefer them to arrive with some cash in their pocket instead of having been robbed and beaten by criminals along the way? This is a huge business for the mafia now.”

For a while, the mood in the stiflingly hot clearing is lifted by Tsartsanis and other volunteers handing out food and drinks and MSF workers distributing bags of supplies, offering medical help and organizing games for the children.

But the weary adults remain watchful and anxious. When will the police signal to their group to hurry on into Macedonia? Will thugs attack and rob them in the woods? What awaits them in Serbia? And will they manage to re-enter the EU in Hungary, where a border fence is being built in response to record numbers of asylum seekers arriving by this route — more than 100,000 so far this year.

As heat and impatience build, arguments veer into shoving matches between men from different countries. Someone sidles over to talk to the police, arousing the suspicion of the crowd. Some people who slipped away earlier are seen sprinting through distant fields. Sometimes the officers send a jeep after such groups; other times they exchange a glance and continue smoking.

Idomeni is one of several bottlenecks on the Balkan route that force together large numbers of people from very different backgrounds.

Many Syrians, in particular, are well dressed and well equipped and are generally in good health. Some even carry tents and other camping gear, and it is quite common for relatives to wire money to them in Istanbul, Athens or Belgrade.

In other circumstances, some Syrian migrants could be mistaken for backpacking students or families going on a package vacation. By contrast, the Afghans, Pakistanis and Somalis are usually the poorest migrants, and their journeys are therefore the longest, hardest and most dangerous.

Something triggers a flurry of activity in the clearing, and suddenly children are being rounded up, bags thrown onto backs, headscarves adjusted and tents disassembled.

Perhaps 200 people mass at the invisible border, jostling and arguing over who has been there longest and watching intently for a signal from the perspiring policemen.

Unnoticed by the throng 30 feet away, some 20 people quickly coalesce, and at the same time, a policeman breaks from his colleagues and flicks a hand to tell the smaller group to move, now, down the dirt track before them.

The group seems to be led by Adil, 33, a Syrian Kurd who is traveling with his wife, their 2-year-old boy and several other relatives.

Hassan and his two sons are with them, striding into the fields of Macedonia without a backward glance at Greece or the angry, stranded crowd.

By night, all of them will have left Greece and will be heading through Macedonia toward Serbia. They leave the European Union already desperate to return — swiftly, much farther north and for good.

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