Dimitrios Chantzaras / NurPhoto / AP

Once scene of chaos, Greece-Macedonia border now well-oiled crossing

Volunteers process 5,000 refugees a day amid fears of a bottleneck if Hungary closes border

IDOMENI, Greece — Not long ago, this border crossing with Macedonia was a chaotic scene of brutal police pushback against thousands of refugees making their way north through Europe, but today it is an organized transit point, processing as many as 5,000 people a day in a crisis that has carved deep divisions across the European Union. Despite improvements in efficiency at the entry point, aid workers remain tense, fearing that Hungary’s plan to close its borders could suddenly jam the route, filling the nearby fields and forests with thousands of people who have virtually no supplies and nowhere to go.

For now, the crossing point at Idomeni is a well-oiled machine. Buses and taxis arrive hourly from the southern Greek port city of Piraeus, shuttling in hundreds of asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Teams of volunteers work hastily to organize the men, women, children and a handful of elderly people into groups of 50. The goal is clear: Get to Hungary fast, before President Viktor Orban's promised crackdown on those crossing the border begins. 

The refugees then stand or sit patiently under the hot sun for a turn to shuffle to the next stop in the border-crossing process. Exhausted after days without sleep, many clutch backpacks and plastic bags containing the few belongings they have managed to take with them on the journey.

Every 15 minutes, a group is escorted through a football-field-length stretch of trash-littered ground to the border with Macedonia, where police issue them paperwork that allows them 72 hours in the country without prosecution. But virtually none of them have arrived with plans to stay in Macedonia or Greece, where struggling economies offer scant opportunities for new arrivals.

In Macedonia, more teams of volunteers from the United Nations and government special police forces guide them onto buses or onto rundown electric trains or cramped taxis headed for the country’s northern border with Serbia. From Hungary, most refugees hope to continue toward more-prosperous countries in Western Europe.

Because of the urgency keeping the refugees moving, the Idomeni border crossing has become one of the most functional cogs in what is now a massive trans-European migration channel. The orderly atmosphere is a stark contrast to last month’s bloody clashes between refugees and riot police blocking their passage into Macedonia. 

“We didn’t have any idea that it would be like this when we left Syria — trust me,” said Saeed, a 20-year-old college student from the Syrian port city of Latakia, as he looked around at hundreds of other people waiting to cross the border. “We knew the journey would be hard, but we didn’t know there would be so many people and what the response would be like. But we only have one choice now. We have to move on.”

Saeed, who declined to give his last name because he feared reprisals for family members still in Syria, said he knew he was one of the lucky ones among the hundreds of thousands like him who have made the dangerous Mediterranean Sea crossing from Turkey to Greece. He said it took him six days to get from Syria to this point in the Greece-Macedonia-Serbia route.

“We had an extremely good smuggler,” he said. “This is unusual. No one gets a smuggler who tells the truth.”

He also knows that he has a significant advantage over many of the other refugees, more than 50 percent of whom also came from Syria, according to United Nation statics. A fluent English speaker, he hopes to make it to the Netherlands, where he wants to continue his education and get a master’s degree.

“I’ll learn Dutch, but they study in English in the Netherlands, so I know I am lucky,” said.

The efficiency that has developed over the past few days at the border camps in Idomeni and 100 yards away in Gevgelija, Macedonia, has helped speed up the process of getting tens of thousands of refugees across the continent. But aid workers on the Greek side said there are serious concerns about what the next few days will bring.

Late Monday, Hungary began closing its border with Serbia. After Sept. 14, anyone caught illegally crossing into Hungary will be prosecuted. The government has begun building a 4-meter-high fence along its border, and the military has been sent to patrol the area.

Aid workers fear Hungary’s moves could create a massive bottleneck in the transit corridor, since 5,000 people are now passing through each day. With the flow halted, massive crowds would quickly build on the Greek side’s dry fields and thin forests.

“It would be a humanitarian catastrophe,” said Antonis Rigas, the team leader for Idomeni’s volunteers from Geneva-based Doctors Without Borders. “It’s simply not possible. This area is not meant to have that many people living here.”

Doctors Without Borders and other groups have set up tents for food and medical aid on both sides of the border, along with a dozen portable toilets and places with running water for bathing and drinking. Bulldozers were working to clear and flatten land for tents that could shelter for up to 2,000.

If the refugees aren’t able to move on from what is meant to be a short-stay transit station here, the current infrastructure will not be enough, Rigas said. “Closing the border is not a solution to what we know will be more people coming,” he said.

For refugees like Firuos, 22, who left Afghanistan weeks ago with the hope of getting to Germany and finding a job, the fear of what may lie ahead on the Hungarian border seems inconsequential compared with what he has already survived.

“We haven’t slept more than a few hours since we left Afghanistan 36 days ago,” said Firuos, a thin, blue-eyed student from the northern Afghan region of Kapisa. “We aren’t scared now because we have already been through so much to get here.”

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