Crowd control: Raw realities of the refugee crisis on Greece’s border
Poor response from the Greek and Macedonian governments is exacerbating an already precarious situation.
Mist hangs in the air above the northern Greek planes as the sun rises. Already the air is warm, promising another blistering September day.
Along the sides of the motorways shuffle clusters of refugees, each following the group ahead, all moving in one direction - toward the border of the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonian a few kilometers ahead.
Most have already been walking since midnight after catching buses that left the city of Thessaloniki 75 kilometers away, dropping them several kilometers south of the village of Eidimoni, where Macedonia meets Greece.
Around 4,000 people a day, mostly from Syria and Iraq, are crossing between Greece and Macedonia through Eidimoni.
They are heading for European Union (EU) countries such as Germany and Sweden, who have already given a home to thousands of refugees.
In recent months, the number of refugees making the journey across Europe has risen exponentially.
A local activist who has been providing assistance to refugees since last October, and who requested not to be named, said a year ago only around 300 a day would cross this border.
Luca Guanziroli, who works for the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR on the border, said just last week the numbers crossing were only around 2,000, but had since doubled, and some 70 percent are Syrians.
“We knew the situation before we came here,” says Majid, a medical student from Aleppo in his early 20s.
“We saw this situation on the TV, so why did we come? For their money? For their food? No, we came just for some safety and an education.”
Majid and several others in his group were just one month away from finishing their degrees in medicine, mechanical engineering and economics before their university was closed due to fighting. They say if they cant finish their degrees, they will start again in Germany.
On the side of the railway tracks that cross the border at Eidimoni, people gather in the shade below a line of trees.
Many lie in heaps on the shingle of the tracks, exhausted and sleeping. They are waiting for word that the Macedonian police will open the frontier and let them pass.
Representatives from the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) and the UNHCR move between the huddles of people with translators.
“We inform them that the border opens for 50 people at a time, and we divide them into groups so there are no problems” Yola, who is part of the IOM team, told Al Arabiya News.
However, soon after the first group was allowed to cross the border, the refugees surged forward, overwhelming the half-dozen Greek police who were unable to stop the tide of people desperate to cross the border.
The Macedonian police on the other side of a coil of razor wire are waiting with riot shields, helmets and batons to prevent a run on the crossing.
For the next few hours, the representatives of the UNHCR and refugees tried to organize the huge crowed into lines of 50 so each could pass in turn.
By mid-afternoon, as the noon sun baked down, tensions flared. As refugees pushed forward to the crossing, Macedonian police struck back, charging at the crowd with batons and shields.
Throughout the afternoon, the throng surged forward and was pushed back. Those who managed to cross often did so stumbling, dropping belongings and struck by police batons. Families were separated.
A Syrian man pushed forward to the police lines in tears, having lost his wife and child in the confusion.
He had no idea if they had managed to cross, or where they would have gone if they had. He had a genuine fear he would never see them again.
Guanziroli says the system of letting 50 people through at a time is not working because of the size of the crowds and the lack of coordination.
“Here, the authorities wait for the problem before they start to work on crowd control, so the first thing we have to have is a proper transit area,” he said, citing airports and music festivals as examples of places with good crowd control.
Last week, the UNHCR sent a site planner to draw up plans for a proper reception center at the border crossing.
It wants to build something that can accommodate arrivals while providing better services, protection for vulnerable people, medical care, and dignity for the refugees.
It is important to factor in the weather - while it is hot, shade and water are a must. However, as the winter sets in, cold and rain mean shelter will become crucial. The local activist said at least four children died on the border last winter.
However, perhaps most worrying is uncertainty about how other countries will react to the influx of refugees.
“We need a contingency plan. Now the border is open, but imagine if in two weeks or months Hungary closes the border, then Serbia, then Macedonia. If 3,000 people are arriving per day and they close the border, in one week we have 20,000 people here,” said Guanziroli.
“The United Nations is used to working in areas where governance is weak,” he added, pointing to the complex political landscape of Europe, the well-established bureaucratic frameworks that the United Nations has to navigate, and the private landowners and numerous municipalities with which they have to coordinate. This is slowing down its ability to help.
By late afternoon, the now-diminished crowd of several hundred sit listlessly, waiting for their turn to finally cross. The atmosphere is depressed.
Adel Saflou, a UK-born Syrian who is making the journey with his cousins, stood back from the crowd for a minute.
He smiled wryly and said in flawless, unaccented British English: “I think this is the perfect lesson in how not to manage a crowd.”
Guanziroli and his team sit to take a break. The tension of the day has cooled, but the rest is not long. Already, 250 more people have arrived in the afternoon.
Again, the teams from the UNHCR and IOM head out to ask them to form groups of 50, and notify the border police of the next wave of arrivals.
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