Boris Grdanoski / AP

Tight borders boost business for traffickers, say refugees, aid groups

Since November, Balkan states have only allowed refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan to cross their borders

IDOMENI, Greece — The previous night they had defied a deluge to cross secretly into Macedonia, but now a dozen weary people trudged back over the border into Greece, numb with cold, disappointment and uncertainty over what lay ahead.

“We walked for many hours in big rain, and on the other side we hid in the woods for maybe seven hours,” said Majid Dehani from Iran, shivering in sodden clothes that wouldn’t dry in the watery sunshine of a Balkan winter.

“I got freezing cold. I got cuts on my hands and legs,” Dehani said, his eyes wide, his words tumbling out, as if struggling to take in the night’s events.

“We were scared. We hid. But in the end we gave ourselves up to the police,” he said, with a shrug and a bleak smile. “It seemed that I could die there.”

Macedonian police had returned Dehani’s group to the Greek village of Idomeni, which has become a major — and often tense — transit point as Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since World War II brought a million people to the continent.

Since shortly after November’s deadly attacks in Paris, carried out by people affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Macedonia and other Balkan states have only allowed refugees fleeing war in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan to cross their borders.

But the stories of those passing through Idomeni, and aid groups working there, indicate that the restrictions are only driving desperate people into the arms of criminal gangs that offer a covert, costly and high-risk route into Europe.

“Only a few of us gave up — most of the group are still over there,” said Dehani, looking back to the woods and snow-dusted hills of Macedonia.

“There must be 150, maybe 180 people there. I saw a taxi take two families away, but that’s all. Everyone else was still hiding from the police.”

The 25-year-old from the city of Shiraz said he had set off with some 200 people from a meeting point near Idomeni, led by eight men whom he believed to be Pakistani.

Dehani had paid 1,200 euros (about $1,317) at a cell phone shop near Victoria Park in Athens, which serves as a front for a people-smuggling operation, he said.

“There are many shops like that in that area. Iranian friends told me about — they’re easy to find, or they find you,” Dehani said of the traffickers.

“They sell fake identification papers and passports too,” he added. “Iranians get Afghan papers, because our languages are close to each other.”

It is a story repeated by many people at Idomeni, as they rue their misfortune at being caught and dumped back into Greece, and ponder their next move.

Hungarian police officers control the arrival of refugees crossing the border from Greece, at the entrance of the transit center near the southern Macedonia's town of Gevgelija, on Jan. 11, 2016.
Boris Grdanoski / AP

“We bought fake Syrian papers, but they didn’t work and police stopped us at the border,” said Aziz Boukali, a Moroccan travelling with two compatriots.

“Then we each gave a smuggler 600 euros to get us to Serbia, but when we crossed into Macedonia he left us and the police caught us and brought us back here. Now we have no money left — not even 30 euros for the bus back to Athens.”

But for all those who are caught, many others make it into Macedonia and continue northwards: every night now, refugees are found walking along unlit roads and rail tracks away from the Greek border, aid groups report; and Austria has turned back hundreds of people at its border with Slovenia in recent weeks for falsely claiming to be Syrian, Afghan or Iraqi.

Despite Turkey’s pledge to tighten its borders, some 3,000 refugees on average still reach Greece each day, prompting calls for much tougher security at the Greece-Macedonia frontier.

A razor wire fence is already in place along stretches of the border, where Macedonian police are now assisted by colleagues sent from Slovakia and Hungary, countries that fiercely oppose mass migration and Germany’s plan for every EU state to take a quota of refugees.

“It is nice that [Turkey] has promised that there would be a line of defense there, but we need to build one of our own, from our own resources, on the northern border of Greece and stop — not slow down, but stop — migration,” Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban said on Jan. 8.

When Hungary fenced off its own borders with Serbia and Croatia, it did not cut the number of refugees reaching the EU, but only re-routed them through Croatia and Slovenia on their way to Austria, Germany and beyond.

Similarly, Balkan states’ bid since November to allow passage to only Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans has not deterred thousands from other countries, who are ready to give their life savings to criminals to smuggle them through tighter borders.

“Our teams have seen, ever since the closure of the border to some nationalities …the return of smugglers in the area,” said Gemma Gillie, a spokeswoman for Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders, or MSF), which runs a mobile health clinic and other services around Idomeni.

“These trafficking networks had disappeared in June with the legalisation of the border crossing … but have notably increased again since the new restrictions were implemented,” she added.

MSF doctors have treated injuries, including broken bones, which some refugees say they suffered at the hands of Macedonian police. At Idomeni, meanwhile, Greek police appear to have little interest in the smugglers and their customers.

In a cluster of trees beside the highway a short walk from the border, stand several derelict buildings with gaping holes in their roofs and walls, where people of all ages shelter before attempting a nocturnal border crossing. In the field beyond, dozens more refugees from north Africa and Asia huddle under coats and blankets.

Among the travellers are a few men who are watchful, unwilling to talk and who never move on.

Aid workers are sure these men are part of the smuggling operation, and it must be equally obvious to local police, who have a patrol car parked barely a mile from this sprawling camp.

Last week, 34 refugees were found hiding in a truck traveling through Macedonia, in the kind of smuggling incident that is again becoming common, and which recalled the death of 71 refugees in a truck in Austria in August.

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) is “concerned over the consequences of border restrictions implemented by several countries in the Balkans, as desperate people continue to seek safety in Europe despite the harsh winter,” said Babar Baloch, a spokesman for the organization.

“The UNHCR keeps advocating for legal pathways for the desperate to reach Europe. In the absence of this, desperate people are being exploited by ruthless smuggling and human trafficking networks,” he added.

Conditions are alarming for those trying to slip into Macedonia, but they are also harsh for refugees from warzones who have permission to cross.

After refugees protested and one was killed by electrocution on the rail line at Idomeni last month — continuing months of disruption on a major regional cargo route — Greek authorities no longer allow large numbers of people to gather there.

This leaves a complex of huge, heated tents run by MSF and others aid groups — complete with hot showers, cooking facilities and wifi — standing empty at Idomeni, People who are refused passage at the border are not allowed inside, while Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans are made to wait for their turn to cross the frontier at a gas station 12 miles away, sometimes for 24 hours in bitter cold.

For several nights earlier this month “around 2,000 people were forced to sleep in the open as temperatures dropped as low as minus 9 Celsius [16 degrees farenheit],” said Gillie from MSF, which provides shelter, food and firewood at the gas station.

“With up to a third of people arriving at this station children … we are seriously concerned about the potential medical impact this could have,” she added.

As winter takes hold in Europe, there is no end in sight to its refugee crisis, or to the vast numbers of people ready to risk everything to start a new life here.

For Dehani, however, a night spent hiding from police in remote woods under a Balkan rainstorm was enough to prompt second thoughts.

“I will go back to Athens and try to get my money back from the smugglers,” he said, as he looked for somewhere to rest and warm up at Idomeni.

“I am against the regime in Iran, but it seems I have no case to be a refugee in Europe. So I will call my uncle in Shiraz and ask his advice — maybe it is time to go home.”

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