Refugees at Idomeni await an unlikely solution from EU summit

Whatever the outcome of this week's EU refugee summit, it's unlikely to go in the refugees' favour, at least not in terms of opening a border for those backed up in Northern Greece.

Disbelief at being left in terrible conditions mingles with determination to move to a better life

Charities such as Médecins Sans Frontières are providing food for the refugees. (Margaret Evans/CBC)
One of the first people I met in the swamp of a camp at Idomeni in Northern Greece last week was a 22-year-old Iraqi from Mosul named Salim. It was night, pitch black and pouring with rain.

He called hello as I walked by, just a face peeking through a tent flap zipped almost to the top. Little bubble-wrap tents just like it were everywhere you looked, packed with people trying to escape the deluge.

With no room inside for belongings, T-shirts, jeans, bibs and knapsacks hung outside on trees or on sticks in the mud, sopping wet.

"The weather is very cold," Salim said when I asked him how he was faring, He and three friends had been waiting at the border for two weeks, watching as the number of people being allowed across into Macedonia each day slowed to a trickle and then stopped. Just like his money.  

So what was his plan, I asked. He was going to wait, he told me, and see what EU leaders decide at their big summit this week. Talk about waiting for Godot.
Of the thousands of people camped out at Idomeni, 40 per cent are children, according to the UNHCR. (Margaret Evans/CBC)

The truth is that whatever the outcome of the summit, it's unlikely to go in the refugees' favour, at least not in terms of opening the border for those now backed up in Greece — 40,000 to 50,000 and counting. That's not what's on the table. 

EU officials hope to reach a deal with Turkey that will see "irregular migrants," as they're being dubbed, returned to Turkey.  

Ankara is demanding a lot in exchange: visa-free travel for Turkish citizens in the European Union; an extra €3 billion to house the more than two million refugees it's already hosting and an accelerated discussion about eventual Turkish membership.

Oh yes, and for each person returned to Turkey, the European Union would resettle a Syrian refugee from inside Turkey.

Here's what Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, had to say about that in an open letter to EU leaders this week: "Each Syrian refugee is a person, not an interchangeable number to be traded for another Syrian refugee."
Nawel el Abed's injured leg means she has undertaken this journey in a wheelchair, pushed with her husband Amar's help. (Margaret Evans/CBC)

He also took the EU to task over its muted response to Turkey's recent crackdowns on human rights and the media, suggesting that the EU was willing to turn a blind eye to abuses in the interests of securing a deal. 

Critics say in its zeal to put a cork in the refugee bottle, the EU risks flouting international law including the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits collective deportations. 

But divisions within the EU itself could still send the deal sliding off the table. Spain and France have raised humanitarian concerns. Hungary wants no more resettlements agreed to and Cyprus has raised its old grievances with Turkey, saying there will be no deal without proper recognition of Cyprus as a state.

The quicksand of their ordeal

And all the while the refugees waiting at Idomeni slide further and further into the quicksand of their ordeal, their faith in humanity sliding beneath the surface along with them.

Their disbelief at being first blocked and then left to fester in such terrible conditions looks out of just about every face you meet, along with their unwillingness to give up on their goal when they've sacrificed so much to make it here. 

I met an 18-year-old Syrian woman named Rim who told me she could only cry about how cold and uncomfortable and afraid she feels when she's away from the tent she and five family members are sharing.  

"This for father and mother, it would be like I killed them if I am crying in front of them," she said.

"Do you understand that? I want to show them we are strong and we must complete it. How much I cry, how much I scream for the people no one can feel."
Keeping children dry is a major challenge for parents in the camp. The sound of children coughing is constant. (Margaret Evans/CBC)

She is surrounded by misery. Forty per cent of those at Idomeni are children, according to the UNHCR.  And in the early morning mists the only sounds you'll hear are the small, racked coughs of children. 

It's not hard to understand why hundreds of refugees tried to find another way to cross the border earlier this week, forming a human chain to try and ford a river, families hoisting their kids above their heads. One harrowing picture shows two men in wheelchairs being pushed by friends.

Some were detained by the Macedonian police but the others were turned back to Idomeni.  

In an interview in Athens on Friday the Greek deputy minister for public order, Nikolaos Toskas, said Athens will not remove the refugees from the border by force.

 'We don't want to force them'

"It's not realistic to move 13,000 people from near the borders. Half of them are women and children.  But we don't want to force them … we hope, we believe that they will move voluntarily [to official] camps where they can have better days, better living."

This past week agents from the European Union's Asylum Support Office were very visible at Piraeus, the main port near Athens, trying to encourage people to sign up to the EU's vaunted relocation program.

Last year the EU said it would resettle 160,000 refugees from Greece and Italy, but only about 1,000 have actually been moved. There's little trust in that among refugees, but the closed border and the miserable conditions there are boosting the numbers of people signing up.

Abdul Touk and his wife, camping out on the dock, have registered, saying they don't care which EU country they're sent to as long as it's not back to Turkey or Syria. They have little faith in the peace process.
Abdul Touk, 31, was born in Homs and has been living in Damascus. He has signed up for the EU's relocation scheme and says he doesn't care which EU country accepts his application. (Margaret Evans/CBC)

They too made a treacherous journey by sea to reach Greece in the hopes of travelling through the Balkans overland, paying smugglers €2,000 each for their passage.

"We [had] a deal to go by yacht and then when we was [sic] near from the beach we found a rubber boat," says Touk. "And you cannot say no because everybody has a weapon and force you to be inside the boat."

When they arrived in Athens the couple made their way north to Idomeni.  But they were appalled by the living conditions. And with the border closed, they decided to trust that the European Union will get its relocation program up and running.

It is, say aid agencies, an important first step in beginning to bring some sense of order or control to the refugee crisis. And it is now showing some signs of life.

Another young Syrian camped out at Piraeus is hedging her bets, just like Salim up along the border. 

Zeina Shalamy is rare: a young woman travelling on her own. She says she'll wait to see what the European Union decides — if anything — before making up her mind on her next move.

She hasn't, she says, lost hope.  Although she can't tell you why.

About the Author

Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.