A journey of hope
Having spent more than a decade closely documenting the plight of asylum seekers in the central Mediterranean, I leapt at the opportunity to cover the story in Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia for the Jesuit Refugee Service earlier this year.
Biting cold air envelopes the small army of NGO volunteers coming from all over Europe on the rocky foreshore, close to the airport outside Mytilene, on the Greek island of Lesbos.
The volunteers are on the frontline of the migration crisis in the Aegean, looking towards the mountains that line the western shore of Turkey. They are searching for a glimpse of yet another boat of asylum seekers, risking life and limb in search of a better, and safer, life.
It’s part of a well-established routine now. Every morning, before dawn, the volunteers gather with their vehicles at various spots along the eastern coast, waiting for the inevitable arrivals.
Reports come in that, in the past hour, four boats on their way to our approximate location have been intercepted by the Greek coast guard. They are now being towed to safety, after they appeared to be in danger of foundering because of overloading. Only one rubber dinghy is expected, spotted through high-powered binoculars.
As the boat reaches the shallows, several volunteers in wetsuits wade into the water and take hold of it from all sides, to ensure it remains stable and there is no last-minute capsizing with potentially disastrous consequences.
There are more volunteers to meet the boat than there are men, women and children on board the dinghy. Though no single NGO is in charge, things appear to be relatively well organised. Everyone seems to know what they have to do. People are lifted and helped over the side; other volunteers are waiting with blankets and dry socks for the children. Further up on the beach, where the vehicles are parked, other volunteers have set out tables with hot drinks and food. It’s all over quickly. Less than half an hour after hitting shore, all the new arrivals are on buses operated by the UNHCR on their way to a reception centre.
The reception centre at Moria is off-limits to the media and most NGOs. Surrounded by high walls lined with barbed wire, it appears ominous. Alongside it, another camp has sprung up, run by a loose coalition of local and international organisations. Known as Afghan Hill, it consists of hundreds of tents on a muddy hillside. Usually, people would only stop there for a day or two while they recover the strength before catching a ferry to the Greek mainland. However, a strike by the ferry workers which has dragged on for days means the camp, like others on the island, is now packed to bursting point as the number of arrivals keeps steadily rising while no one is able to leave.
Getting to the border
The first ferry to reach the mainland in several days at the end of the strike disgorged a mass of humanity in the port of Piraeus. Several hundred people, heavily laden with all manner of belongings they’d received in the camps, poured onto the jetty, to be met by yet another army of NGO personnel and people offering transportation into Athens or straight to the border with Macedonia. Victoria Square, a small public garden in a grubby neighbourhood in downtown Athens, has become synonymous with the migration crisis. Migrants have been flooding the square for several months as it is close to metro stations, and more importantly, a stone’s throw away from the departure point of the buses that make the nightly overland journey to the Greek-Macedonian border.
My colleague and I join them on the long and uncomfortable trip. For some reason that remains unclear to me, the driver opts to stay off highways, adding considerably to the travelling time. People’s stories remain the same – most are fleeing from Assad’s bombs, the Islamic State and the Taliban, and all dream of their final destination being Germany.
Ten hours later, at the crack of dawn, the bus pulls into a parking lot next to a petrol station outside the village of Polikastro, some 24 kilometers from the border crossing at Idomeni. The air is thick with smoke from bonfires around which people are huddling, seeking refuge from the freezing temperatures. The place is full of tents and parked buses.
Within a couple of days, the area will become a temporary stopping point for over 80 buses and 6,000 tired and desperate people, after striking taxi drivers across the border in Macedonia block the railway tracks leading north. The bus pulls to a halt behind several others. The driver explains the bus won’t be able to go further for several days because of the closed border. He suggests everyone disembarks and makes their way to the tents as they will freeze on the bus. Many of my travelling companions get to their feet and step out. British aid workers immediately give them blankets to wrap themselves in.
From my seat, I watch a group of around 20 of them walking towards a row of mobile toilets set up on the edge of the car park. I think nothing of it. Suddenly, they all break into a sprint and disappear into the undergrowth on the periphery. They won’t find themselves back on tarmac for dozens of kilometres, as smugglers will keep them off the roads as they trek towards gaps in the still-porous border between Greece and Macedonia. These people were all so-called economic migrants, who knew they would get no further if they tried to cross at the established refugee border crossings.
Things are relatively calm at the now-infamous camp on the border at Idomeni. With the refugees being stopped at Polikastro, the numbers have dwindled. They continue to trickle towards Macedonia on foot, where, once across, they pass through the Vinojug Temporary Transit Centre outside the village of Gevgelija. The odd train is being allowed through the taxi drivers’ blockade.
Many of the migrants however opt to use the taxis and buses to head further north to the border with Serbia. There is a long walk from the migrant transit camp near the Macedonia-Serbia border. Trains stop in the camp itself and disembark all their passengers. Unless they require medical care, most tend not to hang around, but immediately set off on foot. Those who do hang back sometimes try to jump onto a freight train that would be passing through.
The footpath across the border to a small camp on the Serbian side is littered with abandoned belongings. Blankets and sleeping bags flutter in the wind across the desolate and muddy landscape. Migrants only stop there for registration, and then make their way into the transit camp at Presevo, where they wait for the next available train or bus to take them up to the camps in Sid and Adasevci near the Croatian border. Croatian officials working in tandem with the Serbs question each person boarding a train at Sid to cross into Croatia. Here, we see clear evidence of how countries on the refugee route are using dangerously arbitrary criteria to determine who may and may not cross their borders – refugees must come from the ‘right’ country of origin and name the ‘right’ country of destination when questioned at the borders. Those criteria change on a regular basis. More worryingly, there doesn’t appear to be any effort to listen to individuals to determine their protection needs.
At Slavonski Brod, Croatia’s sixth largest city, a large industrial zone has been converted into a transit camp. Several times a day, trains carrying around a thousand migrants stop in the camp, and once again, everyone disembarks. Men and women of all ages, as well as children, queue through a complex of tents to be registered. The wind and rain pick up. Before long, an intense gale is ripping through the camp, knocking down tents and flipping over a couple of containers. Under a large marquee tent in which NGOs distribute clothing, food and hot drinks to the migrants, people desperately try to hold down the parts of the canvas that are flapping insanely in the wind. They know that if this marquee – packed with several hundred people – collapses, there will be a lot of injuries. Luckily that doesn’t happen. Once the storm abates, Croatian soldiers immediately move into action to repair the damage and re-erect the smaller tents that bore the brunt of the wind’s fury.
The migrants are only in the camp long enough to register, pass through the NGO tent to try get whatever supplies they may need and then return to the train, which will take them onwards on their journey into central Europe.
This report was written before the EU-Turkey agreement on the return of migrants to Turkey came into effect.