Outlook from Idomeni on the Greek-Macedonian border

Outlook from Idomeni on the Greek-Macedonian border

by Balthazar Mandahl Forsberg

In this short piece I share some of my experiences and observations from my stay in Idomeni as a volunteer. I’ll try to give a brief overview over work of independent volunteer groups in the camp and provide a quick glance of the problems and possibilities for refugees currently stuck in Greece.

When Macedonia sealed its border with Greece on March 9 the informal settlement that had previously functioned as a pass through site turned into a permanent home for refugees caught south of the border. The makeshift camp, which was cleared in the end of May, hosted around 14000 refugees at its peak but that figure dropped to around 10000 over the last month. Many of these were families fleeing war-torn Syria and Iraq. According to UN estimates, no less than 40 % of refugees in the camp were children, followed by 38 % men and 22 % women. Syria and Iraq were by far the most represented countries, with 50 % and 40 % of the camp’s population respectively.


© Rick Gunn

Having spent a couple of weeks volunteering during the winter on the Greek island Chios, I decided to travel to Idomeni this time as there had been several calls for volunteers and reports describing the situation as a humanitarian crisis. Conditions in camp were indeed poor with insufficient sanitation facilities and without a functional sewage system. During rainy days and nights the fields turned into mud and large parts of the area became flooded while the strong gust winds that came over Northern Greece during spring destroyed many of the cheap and low-quality tents. The Greek authorities declared right from the outset that they would clear the camp and transfer all its residents to military-run camps around Greece. This meant that no greater efforts were made by the Greek government to improve conditions in the camp.  As a result, NGOs and groups of independent volunteers were left provide most provisions and services. A variety of basic services were provided in the camp. Next to the most essential help such as medical aid and food, there was a cultural center where adults and children could go for language classes and other activities, a tent building team and informational centers.

The infrastructure set up by volunteers was impressive considering the limited funding and lack of central organization. However the decentralized structure and the flexibility that comes with the decentralized structure is also the strength of independent volunteers. Bigger organizations such as MSF and Save the Children have larger bureaucracies and longer decision making processes while the informally organized volunteers are inventive and action oriented and can adjust to the rapidly varying conditions and needs in the camp. A great example of this is the laundry and reuse initiative in the aftermath of the eviction of the camp. As people were cleared from the campground, thousands of high quality UNHCR blankets were left behind and were set for becoming waste in a landfill. However, within a couple of days a small group mobilized volunteers and set up a laundry system with hospital hygiene standards, saving ten thousand UNCHR blankets worth over € 70000 and handing them over to the MSF.

During my three weeks in the camp I was working with Hot Food Idomeni, which is a kitchen that is managed, funded and run entirely by volunteers. It was set up by five British guys but has around 20 volunteers helping on a daily basis. With a policy of “no meetings only doing” (although not strictly followed), they have created a structure where new volunteers can be put to productive work from the minute they arrive while at the same time constantly improving the process to be able to deliver more and better food. Starting with one pot of soup the first day after the group arrived in early March, Hot Food Idomeni was by the time I left in mid-May handing out around 6500 healthy and nutritious meals a day prepared in a fully equipped outdoor kitchen.


© Rick Gunn


© Rick Gunn, In the line for Hot Food distribution


©Balthazar Mandahl Forsberg, The current kitchen built and paid for by volunteers and donors.

Services were not only provided by NGOs and volunteers, many of the refugees in the camp took matters into their own hands and set up their own little businesses. Next to the many mini shops selling cigarettes, groceries and other basic goods, there were barbers, bakers and charging stations for electrical devices. Small food stands started to pop up in different places around the camp during the course of my stay. A delicious falafel in freshly backed flatbread was a personal favorite of mine.


© Colleen Sinsky

Stuck in limbo

Nevertheless, not all people managed to keep their entrepreneurial spirit high. With no way forward and no viable alternatives to turn back to people find themselves stuck in limbo. With the border indefinitely sealed, there are few options to continue. Some try to get smuggled up through the Balkans. According to sources in the camp smugglers charge around 1000 EUR for a trip to Serbia and a further 700 EUR to continue up to Germany. Others try to pursue the journey themselves, crossing the border at night and then walking for days through forests and mountains to avoid discovery. This is a risky option as there are several accounts of vigilante groups and multiple cases of refugees being beaten by Macedonian police before being returned to Greece. Nevertheless, many of the younger men feel that they have nothing to lose, as they cannot return to their home and cannot live in mud for months without any legal solution in sight. Yet others choose to return to their homeland, Ali, a friend I made in the camp who fled Baghdad as he had been threatened to life several times by militias, decided to return after having spent two months waiting in Idomeni. Over the phone from Athens he told me how he could no longer live in complete uncertainty, powerless and without dignity and would rather risk his life going back to Iraq than try to illegally enter a continent that does not want him.

The only legal way to continue further up through Europe is currently the EU relocation mechanism agreed upon in September 2015. Hossem and his family fleeing the ancient Syrian town Palmyra, is one of the families applying for relocation. Palmyra is just one of the many Syrian towns that have been severely affected by war. Having been under IS control, the town was retaken by Assad’s forces backed by heavy Russian bombardment in March 2016. With a brother and a sister already killed in the war, he wants to join his other two sisters who already made it to safety in Germany. Hossem is aware that the relocation process is not working well but as he is traveling with children the dangerous illegal ways are not an option. Between mid-March and mid-May 2016 only 355 refugees had been relocated from Greece to other destinations in the EU bringing the total amount of relocated people under the scheme to a grand total of 1500 over 9 months. Considering that there are currently around 53000 refugees in Greece according to the UN, the prospects for being relocated are very slim.


© Ignacio Marin photography, Idomeni on the 27th of May after the eviction

With the eviction of the camp, which took place between the 23rd and the 26th of May, the majority of the refugees residing in Idomeni where transported to surrounding government-run military camps. Since then, these camps have been criticized by the UN and human rights organizations for shortages of water and food.  Substandard sanitation facilities and housing have also been reported from various sites. This has been confirmed by volunteers in the area, who have been asked to support some of the new camps. Hot Food is one of the groups that has redirected its services to the military-run camps after the closing of the Idomeni camp. They are currently driving out and distributing around 5000 meals a day and are set to continue until their services are not needed in Greece anymore.

In my view, they should not have to be there much longer as refugees in the camp should receive the food they need from the official institutions that are managing these camps. This can also be said more generally about the presence of volunteers along the Balkan route, which is a symptom of the failure of the governments and international organizations to provide necessary aid to the people in need. Sure, volunteers can play an important role filling out temporary gaps of capabilities of official institutions. Nonetheless, in the long run, official institutions should carry out these responsibilities. It is to some extent understandable that the Greek government has been struggling to find adequate housing and food provision for the more than 50000 refugees currently within its border as it would be a challenge for any government to plan and implement a housing and support program for this amount of people. Considering the rapid increase in of stranded refugees following the Macedonian border closer and taking the limited governmental capacities and budget of Greece into account, one cannot expect flawless housing to be made readily available in such a short time. However, as the EU signed its deal with Turkey and the borders along the Western Balkan route were sealed, more assistance should have been provided by other EU member states in order support Greece in order to provide decent housing and food provision to the refugees that got stuck in Greece as a result of the deal.

To address this crisis swift and decisive action must be taken by the EU and its member states. In addition to improving the current situation in the camps, it is clear that we need to find a fast solution for people to move on from the camps. Legal ways into the EU must be opened up for refugees with legitimate asylum claims and the asylum application process in Greece should be speeded up considerably. Should we fail to effectively address these challenges it would constitutes a blatant failure of a Europe claiming to be a champion of human rights and liberal values.


© Colleen Sinsky, New government-run camp


Balthazar Mandahl Forsberg is an intern at the Institute of International Relations in Prague.