On Macedonia border, Syrian migrants hope for open door

Conditions have improved since this empty meadow, under the gaze of several distant casinos, turned from a scrum of desperately fleeing victims of war into a proper refugee camp.

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May 1, 2016 03:10
3 minute read.

Idomeni refugees refuse to leave

Idomeni refugees refuse to leave

 
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IDOMENI, Greece – When refugees from Syria first forged a path here last year, through poppy fields along Greece’s border with Macedonia, they were met with tear gas, police batons and detention; with Hepatitis A, muddied waters and not enough food.

Conditions have improved since this empty meadow, under the gaze of several distant casinos, turned from a scrum of desperately fleeing victims of war into a proper refugee camp. But twin barbed-wire fences, shimmering in the sunlight and constantly patrolled by Macedonian law enforcement, now send a clear message to the people who have decided to stay here: You will not pass.

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And yet the refugees stay in the hope that Europe will suddenly change course – just as its leadership faces mounting pressure to clamp down on those seeking asylum in its rich North.

“Will there be an open door?” asked one refugee, Shareen Ibish, sitting in a wideopen tent parked on dirt.

Shareen’s entire family is with her in this camp. The Syrian Kurdish family, from Aleppo, remained in the city besieged by Bashar Assad’s forces until mid-2014, when a bomb fell near her house.

Shrapnel from the attack struck her youngest son in the head. Shareen rubbed his scar and the toddler smiled as she said: “That’s the moment I chose to leave.”

A mother first, Shareen says she does not care where in Europe they land: She will take asylum anywhere. But her patience in Idomeni, where she has camped for two months, is running out.



“It’s terrible here,” she said bluntly.

Nevertheless, conditions here are a far cry from what they had been when the camp first formed. There is Internet connectivity here. A “Children and Family Protection Support Hub” has been erected. Doctors are on a shift schedule offering free medical care at all hours. And as one inhabitant described, the food here is “normal” – bowls with substantial portions of a chickpea-and-tomato dish were served this Wednesday afternoon at a prefabricated station.

Off the side of the food line, free haircuts are on offer. One man, Adnon Musruf from Damascus, sits and gets a trim before lunch.

“I have a child, 10 years old, whom I want to save,” Adnon said.

But after two months of waiting, he is giving up on Europe’s greener pastures: On Saturday he returns to Turkey, he said, after growing convinced that the Balkan route will remain closed for good.

The crisis gripping this small border town has captured international headlines, but tents sprout far south of it, along the main highway into Macedonia, around gas stations and under the shade of trees.

More than 14,000 people now reside here willfully, hoping that the European Union will change its policy and allow more refugees into the continent.

Brussels has taken the opposite approach, cutting a deal with Ankara that allows it to deport refugees arriving on Greek shores back to Turkish refugee camps, in exchange for registered, documented asylum-seekers.

One complicating factor is the fact that not all of these refugees count as refugees: Many, including several who spoke with The Jerusalem Post, classify as economic migrants on the move – not to save their lives, but to secure better ones.

Two such migrants, Owlom Salim Hal and Mustafa Emet, hail from Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan – as safe an Iraqi city as they come. Rich in oil wealth, the need to protect Erbil is what prompted the Obama administration to intervene against Islamic State’s march on Iraq in August of 2014.

“Erbil, no money – only problems,” Owlom said. Mustafa nodded in agreement. “I want to go to Germany, because Germany is very nice and very beautiful.”

It was the dramatic flow of Syrian refugees into Europe last fall that inspired men like Owlom and Mustafa to think they, too, could escape the problems of the Middle East by simply leaving. But Europe has other plans.

Macedonian police continue to use brute force on any refugee or migrant who tries to pass these razored gates (none of them, speaking with the Post, sought refuge in Macedonia itself). But they are not the only ones: Those who have successfully passed through face another closed border, with Serbia, where roughly 800 migrants await news of their fate.

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