Macedonia has shut its borders to all but three nationalities and the backlog has been returned to Athens where they wonder what to do next.
Idomeni, the small Greek village that represents the final Greek frontier and the doorway to Europe for refugees fleeing war and poverty in their countries, was strangely empty on Wednesday night.
After days of a stalemate when Macedonia closed its border to everyone except refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, Greek authorities took measures to transport around 2,000 refugees back to Athens where they will be accommodated at Elaionas camp and, most recently, the Tae Kwon Do stadium, built for when Athens hosted the Olympic games in 2004 and converted into a temporary shelter.
Most refugees arriving in Greece want to move onward, heading through Macedonia mainly towards the promised lands of Germany, the Netherlands or Sweden. When the border shut, a backlog of desperate people became stranded at Idomeni in freezing conditions and with little food and water.
These were people mainly from Iran, Pakistan, Eritrea, Sudan and other countries deemed non eligible by the Macedonian authorities. Back in Athens, their time is running out.
At Victoria Square in central Athens, brothers Saif Ali, 18 and Ali 15 from Lahore in Pakistan were pondering their next move after reluctantly returning to Athens the previous day. Having wasted their money on an unsuccessful trip to Idomeni, they are currently staying at Elaionas camp, which is now full.
“We knew when we paid to take a bus to Idomeni that the border was closed, but we decided to take the risk. They didn’t let us pass, they beat us with sticks. They sent us back. Our money got wasted.
“We were stuck there for five days, it was so cold.” said Saif Ali. “We tried to pass through with everyone else, they check your papers one by one. People had fake papers, and I saw some people borrow the papers of Afghanis, show them to the guards and then slip them back to the owners.”
Nearby, a group of Pakistanis from the Balochistan region had also just come back from the border after failing to cross. Whereas Syrians receive permission to remain in Greece for six months, their papers are only good for one month. Finding themselves stuck, they put the word out to an extended network of friends and families until remote connections were found who were willing to put them up in Athens until they worked out what to do.
None of the group wished to be named, and all told a similar story. “I came to Greece a week ago, and I was going to go to Idomeni, but looking at the state of these guys I’ve changed my mind.” said one of them, with medical qualifications he hopes to put to use wherever he eventually ends up. His brother was taken away by the Pakistani authorities in January 2015 and has not been heard from since. Official channels through the high court and human rights courts drew no leads, only threats that he too would be taken if he didn’t let the issue drop.
“They take people away without any charge, just to break them. I don’t know if my brother is alive or dead. I have seven brothers, we used to all live together at home. Now, we fear for our lives so we scattered. I came to Europe.” he said.
Human Rights Watch has been calling for action over the extensive human rights abuses including enforced disappearances, executions and torture in the Baloch region, allegedly by the Pakistani government and intelligence agencies. Amnesty International has also been documenting the abuses.
The group’s phones contain their own evidence of mutilated corpses of the disappeared and raids by government authorities. “No one wants to leave their homeland,” said another “But it’s too dangerous for us to stay there. Four of my cousins have been disappeared by the authorities. Please tell the world what’s happening in Balochistan.”
Despite the cold, poor conditions and threat of the border closing completely to all nationalities as it did a few days ago, Fariba Faeezi, 42 from Afghanistan, was preparing to catch a bus to Idomeni. She travelled to Greece with her 16 year old son and her husband who is a writer and a poet. “His name is Abdul Ghafoor Fayed Yousfi. He lost all his books on the boat to Greece.” she says.
“I want to go to Germany as soon as possible. We went from Afghanistan to Iran, but the government would not let us work there. In Iran, one of my sons went missing eight years ago when he was 16 and we never heard from him again. I am an engineer. I hope the German government lets me work.”
“I’m not afraid, I will try to go.” she says.
Others are less sure. Mohammad, 35, from Morocco had just arrived in Athens from Chios that morning and had no idea what his next move should be. “I don’t know what I will do. I just got to Athens from Chios. But the border is closed, so now I’m not sure whether I should go, stay here or go to a camp.”
The EU said that this year it received at least one million asylum applications. Recent events such as the Paris terrorist attacks have caused a major political swing to the right in several countries, and Europe’s once open borders are closing one by one.
Meanwhile in Athens, the Olympic stadiums built to showcase Athens at the height of its glory are filling up with people turned away from the border with nowhere else to go, in search of a Europe that no longer seems to exist.
This article was commissioned by n-tv.de. Their German translation of the English version appears here.
When I was done interviewing Fariba Faeezi, she took her hand and placed it on her belly, smiling. She was a few months pregnant. The teenage boy in the group translating for me hadn’t translated that part – he’d mentioned a pain in her belly while crossing the sea because she was scared. She then asked me to take a picture with her. Here it is:
Fariba is one of so many refugees who I have met who want to go somewhere safe and make a contribution. She talked very animatedly and for a long time. You don’t need to imagine the odds she had to overcome as a woman in Afghanistan to get her qualifications as an engineer. Her hope that she would make it to Germany and be allowed to work as an engineer with single-minded and tangible.
As she spoke of her children, she used the word gumshudah, which is the same word in Urdu for “missing”.
Her husband later wrote out the names of the whole family in Farsi for me, and again next to the name of their son Javed Yousfi who went missing aged 16 in Iran, eight years ago now, he wrote that same word – gumshudah. I looked at this smiling woman, her short, humble husband who was so happy at how I reacted when I found out he was a poet and I had nothing but admiration for these people who survived patriarchy in Afghanistan, war, being refugees in Iran where they could not work, surviving the journey across the sea and, as parents, somehow surviving the word gumshudah next to the name of one of their children.