Europe Migration

Austerity strikes strand thousands of refugees in northern Greece

Refugees huddled in blankets gather near the northern Greek village of Idomeni as they wait to cross to Macedonia on 3 Feb., 2016. (SAKIS MITROLIDIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Refugees huddled in blankets gather near the northern Greek village of Idomeni as they wait to cross to Macedonia on 3 Feb., 2016. (SAKIS MITROLIDIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Written by Malachy Browne

A trio of transport blockades by striking Greek farmers and ferry services and Macedonian taxi drivers has created a surge of refugees that aid agencies and police at Greece’s northern border with Macedonia are struggling to manage.

In what could be described the perfect storm of western neoliberal fallout – opposition to austerity, fallout from conflict and an incoherent European Union border policy – thousands of people fleeing conflict are stranded in buses and camps at full capacity on the road north from Athens.

It began in late January when farmers began to strike in protest at pension and health insurance reforms imposed by Greece’s creditors as part of the country’s third bailout. The strike closed the main road north from Athens for several days. To the south, ferry strikes temporarily stemmed the passage of refugees to the Greek mainland from landing points on the islands. While in Macedonia, taxi drivers blocked the train line northward as they demanded a share of the business of transporting refugees onward.

As the blockades in Greece were lifted, thousands of people began to move north toward Idomeni, the main crossing point into Macedonia, where border police are struggling to process a backlog of some 7,000 people awaiting passage. Dozens of buses have been stopped en route from Athens to control flow at the border and the Medicins Sans Frontiers (MSF) refugee camp in Idomeni is at capacity.

A few miles away in Polykastro, thousands of people are stranded at a gas station. No official services are provided by the Greek state there. MSF provides food, water, blankets, warm shelters and toilets,  said Gemma Gillie, a coordinator with MSF. 

“The camp is completely full and in petrol station there’s around 80 buses,”  Gillie said. “That’s around 4,000 people. And there are many other people at various gas stations along the road [from Athens].”

Writing from Idomeni on Wednesday, English teacher and volunteer Craig Wherlock said some refugees were forced to sleep in the open for three nights. With little information provided to the refugees, tensions grew and Wherlock said riot police were drafted in.

The unwillingness of the Macedonian government to open the border crossing at Idomeni to more than a fraction of refugees has created an explosive situation.

Photojournalist Nicola Zolin said some people stranded at the gas station in walked to Idomeni, but couldn’t be accommodated by MSF.

“Normally the camp has interactions with the bus drivers,” he said by phone, and they “were rejected because there’s limited capacity.” 

Macedonia allows entry only to refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Zolin has met asylum-seekers from Algeria, Iran, Morocco, Pakistan and other countries who have been refused entry. Those who are rejected try to cross the border through the forest or with smugglers.

The group photographed below returned an hour later after their smuggler was attacked by an unknown group.

Zolin has heard of refugees paying anywhere from €500 to €1,500 to cross the border. Deals are cut in Athens and people “meet the guy who is going to take them” in Idomeni. The price “depends on nationality, what their context is, how they relate to the smugglers” and how far the smugglers have agreed to take them.

“It’s dangerous – I don’t know how they do it. They get sent back [at the border]. Some manage to get through and are picked up by the Macedonian police who send them back.” 

The situation had “calmed a little in the last 24 hours” Gillie said, and she predicted it will take a few days to clear. However, MSF received information that Macedonia is proposing to conduct 30-minute interviews with refugees, which would slow the process considerably.  

Gillie said that MSF have “no complaints” about the Greek police, that they are “trying.”  The police allowed the full capacity of their Idomeni camp to be used.

“The Greek police are doing everything they can. With resources they have, they’re overwhelmed. They couldn’t have predicted it. It’s an unfortunate combination of strikes.” 

Meanwhile, buses are not authorised to collect refugees at Piraeus Port in southern Greece. Around 1,000 people are stranded there writes Daphne Tolis, a freelance filmmaker who has extensively documented the refugee trail. No official supports are on offer at the terminal, according to other sources. MSF said it is providing for them and requests for volunteers and supplies were made through social media.

The refugee crisis shows little sign of changing with some 62,000 people entering Europe through Greece in January 2016. One third were children, a large number of them unaccompanied, the International Organisation of Migration reported.


About the author

Malachy Browne

Malachy was the founding Managing Editor and Europe Anchor of from 2015 until April 2016. Based in Ireland, he worked with the European team to report on international stories emerging through online communities and citizen networks. Malachy has reported on the Arab Spring, conflicts in Ivory Coast, Yemen, Syria and Ukraine, humanitarian crises from Somalia’s famine to Typhoon Haiyan, and social and civil rights movements. He has written about eyewitness media and citizen networks for Al Jazeera, Open Democracy and the European Journalism Centre.

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