Europe refugee crisis: People stuck at Greece-Macedonia border face growing misery

Migrants stranded on the Greece-Macedonia border expressed despair and frustration on Saturday, ahead of another day of queuing and waiting.

Humanitarian crisis most acute at Idomeni crossing

A refugee man pleads with a group of other men to calm down as a train attempts to pass at the Greek-Macedonia border on March 3, 2016 in Idomeni, Greece. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

A regional governor called on the Greek government Saturday to declare a state of emergency for the area surrounding the Idomeni border crossing where thousands of migrants are stranded due to border restrictions along the route toward western Europe.

Some 13,000-14,000 people are trapped in Idomeni, while another 6,000-7,000 are being housed in refugee camps around the region, said Apostolos Tzitzikostas, governor of the Greek region of Central Macedonia. That means the area handles about 60 per cent of the total number of migrants in the country.

"It's a huge humanitarian crisis. I have asked the government to declare the area in a state of emergency," Tzitzikostas said during a visit to Idomeni to distribute aid to the Red Cross and other non-governmental organizations. "This cannot continue for much longer."

The neighbouring former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia has stopped all but a trickle of Iraqi and Syrian refugees from crossing, following similar restrictions by countries further north on the migration route. The moves have caused a huge bottleneck in Greece, whose islands' proximity to the Turkish coast has made it the preferred entry point for refugees and other migrants seeking better lives in Europe.

Greek authorities said only 184 people crossed the border between 6 a.m. Friday and the same time Saturday morning, while another 100 crossed between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.

"The former Yugoslav republic needs to open immediately to borders and the European Union needs to implement severe action against the countries that are closing borders today, whether they are members of the European Union or candidate members," Tzitzikostas said. "This is unacceptable what they are doing."

The governor said the region needed the emergency measures — or alternatively for the law to be amended — so that regional authorities can obtain the necessary emergency supplies and food to support the refugees and improve their living conditions. He also called on the government to provide a comprehensive plan on how to handle the migration crisis.

The refugee camp at Idomeni has a capacity of about 2,000 and has dramatically overflowed, with new arrivals daily setting up small tents along the railway tracks next to the camp and spilling out into surrounding fields.

Hundreds of men, women and children arrive each day, walking more than 15 kilometres from a nearby gas station where an impromptu camp has been set up. Greek authorities have been trying to discourage more people from arriving because of the bottleneck, but many prefer to wait at the border than in other refugee camps set up nearby, in the hope of getting into the giant line waiting to cross.

Firewood in short supply

As the impromptu camp in the fields has swelled, many of its residents have begun to settle in for the medium term, realizing they will be here for several days at the very least. Authorities set up more large tents Saturday to house the increasing number of arrivals.

One thing that has been in short supply is firewood, which the refugees use to ward off the nighttime cold and to cook in the fields. Many have been breaking branches off nearby trees, dragging them down the road to cut into smaller pieces to feed their campfires.

A tractor trailer that arrived with a large supply of wood was instantly mobbed, with refugees scrambling to grab logs before the driver could get to his delivery point.

The European Union and Turkey will hold a summit on Monday to discuss the refugee crisis which has severely strained relations among EU countries.

"We are expecting Turkey to start finally doing what it should be doing for months now and we also expect our European partners to start receiving refugees in their countries," the governor said. "There needs to be a proportional distribution between the countries."

It is the EU-Turkey summit that many in the camp are turning their attention to.

"On Monday there's a meeting. Let's hope it's a decision in our favour," said Mohammed Ousou, a Syrian Kurd sitting by a small tent in the field as its occupants, Syrian Kurds, played music and sang traditional Kurdish songs, to the delight of passers-by who stopped to clap.

"All of us are waiting for that day. Because here the situation is bad. Every day we are losing money just to stay alive" buying food and supplies, Ousou said. The lunchtime line for a sandwich and a piece of fruit is about two hours long.

"We have to keep moving," chimed in Adnan Khantek, one of the musicians. "With God's will, we will go."