People are quite literally dying as they wait to cross the unofficial border from Greece into the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Two days ago, a Moroccan man seeking asylum in Europe died from electrocution when he touched a railway line while trying to bypass the police checkpoint on the border. Last week, another man died the same way.
Many have been turning to similarly desperate measures since new border restrictions were implemented late last month by Balkan countries, closing passage to all refugees and migrants excepting those from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. According to some NGO reports, this has left approximately 6,000 people from countries like Lebanon, Pakistan and Iran stranded on the Greek side of the border. And with more people arriving every day after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey, their number continues to rise.
At least half of those stuck in Idomeni have been stranded for more than two weeks without any official indication as to whether or when they will be permitted to continue their onward journey through Europe. Frustrations have boiled over with exasperated refugees and migrants protesting against the new policy and blocking the railway tracks. Some have sewn their mouths shut as part of a hunger strike, while others have clashed with police.
The Idomeni site is not set up to support thousands of people staying for days and weeks at a time; it was established only as a transit centre. As a result, there is insufficient shelter and basic services. Dedicated NGO staff and volunteers are scrambling to meet the growing need, but it is not enough.
Media reports accurately portray a dire situation, but they largely miss the presence of hundreds of children among the stranded refugees and migrants. The children caught up in this imbroglio are suffering greatly from rapidly deteriorating humanitarian conditions on the border – their human and political rights largely ignored.
Plunging temperatures and rain have left the site muddy and largely unliveable. Children and families crowd into large tents, sleeping together for warmth. On some nights, it gets so cold that families pry the wood from railway tracks to use as firewood. Respiratory infections among children, especially those under the age of five, are on the rise.
It is a brutal situation and not one parents seeking refuge for themselves and their children thought they would encounter in Europe.
Ali, a 30-year-old man from Lebanon, arrived in Idomeni two weeks ago with his wife and two young sons, only to find the border closed – at least to his family. “I didn’t expect it to be so difficult, says Ali. “We came for the children, but had I known it would be like this, I would not have come. But we cannot go back now.”
As Ali’s three-year-old son Hussein plays with rocks at his father’s feet, Ali speaks worriedly of the nights here. “It is very cold at night and we are struggling to cope,” he says while pointing towards the tent his family shares with 30 other people. “We have three blankets for four people and my son has to sleep in his coat.”
He doesn’t understand why the authorities are allowing Syrians to pass through, but not Lebanese. “The war in Syria has destroyed the region,” he states emphatically. “People think the fighting is only in Syria, but it is everywhere. Bombs have exploded in our city too.”
Ali hopes to settle with his family in Germany. He lived there with his parents when he was growing up and thinks of it as a second home. “Germany is showing humanity in this situation,” he says. Ali does not know that it is destination countries like Germany which have encouraged Balkan countries to restrict passage to only those coming from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ali’s cousin (also named Ali) and his family travelled from Lebanon to Europe and are now stranded at Idomeni as well. He and his wife Heba fled violence in their hometown, bringing their three-year-old son Rami and three-month-old daughter Lina. Their predicament is particularly desperate because someone stole their bag, including their passports and cash, on the bus from Athens to the border. They have nothing now, but the clothes on their backs.
The family of four has been sleeping in a tent made for two. When it rains the tent leaks, soaking their clothes and blankets. Lina has developed a respiratory infection as a result – a precarious state for an infant. Heba explains how breastfeeding has become more difficult because of the stress of the situation and discomfort of feeding Lina on the ground in the tent. They have switched to formula during the day.
Heba is apoplectic about the situation. “Some people say they will open the border for us, while others say it will remain closed. None of the authorities give us any information at all. No one tells us what will happen next. We were just too late – we know many people from Lebanon who have already gone through.”
Her husband thinks they are still better off than at home. “In Beirut, you never know when a bomb might go off,” he says. “The conditions here are terrible, especially with the rain and cold, but at least we know when we put our heads down at night, there will be no bomb.”
Many families stranded in Idomeni express similar sentiments. Those from countries like Iran, Pakistan, Morocco, Lebanon, Bangladesh and Nigeria do not understand why they are being barred from entry to the EU and they chafe at what they see as discriminatory asylum policies. Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, children – no matter what their official status is in a given country, refugee or otherwise – have universal rights to which they are entitled, including basic protections, access to healthcare and education.
For the children stranded at Idomeni, these rights are not being realized and as temperatures continue to drop, their health and wellbeing will increasingly be at risk.
Nevertheless, the parents who brought them here are steadfast in their belief that they had no other choice and that their claims for asylum have just as much legitimacy as those from other countries. “No one would put their children through this journey unless they felt they had to,” says Ali. “They wouldn’t do it if the situation in their home countries was good.”