In early 2016, the Greek village of Idomeni became a symbol of the inadequacy of European Refugee Policy. Over 12,000 people, 40% of them children, were living in the tent village bordering Macedonia, on their way to Central Europe. Additional refugees were camping at gas stations or in open fields, exposed to cold, rainy and windy weather. In May that same year, the camp was cleared, and Greek officials assured that the situation for refugees would improve. Soon after, images from Idomeni disappeared from the media.
Was the situation for the migrants really improved following the clearing of the Idomeni camp? This was the question that inspired Lukas Taufer and Niclas Hallman to go to the region in August 2016. The following article was written by Niclas Hallman, shortly before he tragically passed away in September 2016.*
These were the questions that inspired us to go to the region in August 2016. Having volunteered in Cologne for the Red Cross and assisted refugees in Idomeni in March/April 2016, Lukas and I were familiar with the plight of refugees in Greece. In the context of recent debates in Germany and the EU on the strengthening of the Dublin III regime, which places an additional burden on Greece and other countries where refugees to the EU frequently first arrive, we believed it was important to get clear information on the situation in the Greek border region.
After the clearing of Idomeni, people were transferred to official, fenced and guarded camps in the region. There, most of them applied for asylum, in many cases out of fear of being sent back to Turkey, where their prospects of getting to a stable European country, let alone of being treated in accordance with international law, would be far more uncertain. Several government-led camps in the Macedonia region around Polykastro, Kilkis and Thessaloniki host up to 2,000 people and more. At first, the situation seemed to be more structured and organized than in Idomeni. Families were no longer living in small, two-person tents on plain fields, but in larger tents, still under the open skies, or in converted warehouses that offered at least some protection against bad weather. However, inside the camps, despair and frustration were tangible. Refugees in many camps reported insufficient provision with water, food and/or medical assistance. Others reported bad treatment from the side of the authorities and the military, who were controlling the camps and only allowing selected, if any, organizations access.
Back in Idomeni, many migrants still had hopes that their protest might lead to an swift improvement of their situation, be it through a border re-opening or through an “individual” solution for the people in the camp. The media, who had been able to move freely in the area, had given them the chance to voice their protest and spread it to the world, in particular to Western Europe, so they at least remained part of the public debate. But journalist access to the refugee camps was later restricted, leaving many migrants feeling forgotten and neglected.
Unbearable conditions and disillusionment characterize most of the camps. In addition to lack of basic necessities, and the echoes of the traumatizing experiences many refugees from war-torn countries like Syria and Iraq have suffered, inhabitants of the camps face everyday discrimination. Young Syrians reported that they were not allowed to enter a public swimming pool in Northern Greece, told they might “contaminate” other swimmers. As this situation persists, with many migrants having been stuck in Greece for several months without seeing any progress, tensions have arisen among those living in the camps (e.g., between ethnic or religious groups), as well as between refugees and others, such as employees of the military and organizations like the UNHCR. One small incident can be enough to make a situation escalate.
In August, during the time we were in Northern Greece, refugees in the Herso camp were expressing their protest by occupying the fenced zone where the military was housed. Simultaneously, a group of Yazides had left the Nea Kavala camp neighboring the city of Polykastro out of concern for their safety, as tensions rose between inhabitants of the camp. They were transferred to a new camp in Serres set up exclusively for Yazides. Only days before, UN structures in Nea Kavala had been attacked by upset refugees, making the situation for all organizations in the camp very difficult. The Softex camp in Thessaloniki, a former toilet paper factory turned into a refugee camp, had become infamous for crime, drug abuse, gang activities and violence. Protests broke out after the death of a young woman in Softex, who lost consciousness in the heat of the camp and died in an ambulance that took over an hour to get her to a hospital. The police had evicted several houses in Thessaloniki that had been occupied by leftist activists in order to accommodate refugee families. We saw the police action as having to do with the No Borders Camp on the university campus, from where several protests had been started.
Other migrants, for the most part not from Syria and Iraq and therefore lacking perspectives to get a legal visa for the EU, refuse to enter the camps and prefer living in the streets of Thessaloniki. Sleeping in parks and public places, they are highly dependent on the help of NGOs and independent volunteers, who are relatively well organized in and around Thessaloniki.
Projects like Elpida are trying to improve the situation for refugees by creating a welcoming living environment and giving refugees a moment to rest after being on the run for months. In a converted warehouse that used to be a jeans factory, volunteers are trying to integrate the ca. 200 residents into day-to-day business and to give them back a sense of purpose. The project is still in the build-up phase, but in the long-run, the hope is to make the camp a role model for similar initiatives by creating a workshop where items and furniture can be produced for other camps. Run rather autonomously by volunteers of “Together for Better Days”, financially supported by the philanthropic Radcliffe Foundation and protected by a contracted private security company, the camp is still controlled by the Greek authorities but, for now, without the involvement of the military.
The overall situation in Northern Greece is not satisfying for any group involved: neither the EU, nor Greece, nor the migrants. More than 60,000 migrants were still in Greece waiting to continue their journey to Central Europe at the time of our visit. While the clearing of Idomeni has brought some advantages in terms of structure, the majority still suffer from terrible hardship. In addition, volunteer work is very difficult to conduct given the limited access to official camps and the dispersion of refugees in city parks, fields and the like. During our time there, we experienced how urgently people need support from volunteers, because the Greek government cannot and other European governments are unwilling to provide the necessary means of support.
Given the problems and frustrations with which both refugees and the Greek authorities are confronted, it is hardly recommendable to re-establish the Dublin regime, and it is distressing that this has been championed by prominent German and European politicians. Placing additional burdens on countries currently unable to adequately receive refugees is contrary to European ideals –born out of the disastrous wars on the European continent– of European solidarity, human rights, the rule of law and above all the support of people in need.
*Niclas Hallman’s colleagues at the University of Bonn, in particular Claus Bech Hansen, made minor edits to this article before publication, with the help of Lukas Taufer. Niclas was a courageous, inspiring and caring individual who spoke out against injustice and reached out to those in need. He is dearly missed.
Title image of Idomeini © Lukas Taufer.
 Information on exact numbers vary according to the sources; for an overview see https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/sep/06/prisoners-of-europe-the-everyday-humiliation-of-refugees-stuck-in-greece-migration.