14.05.2016: Idomeni

„When we were stopped and returned, I asked the border guard why they are doing this to us. He just shook his head and did not know what to say.“

Since the closure of the Greek-Macedonian border in March, the majority of refugees stuck in Idomeni have no choice except trying to cross Macedonia on irregular routes. Several groups leave every day, many are caught and returned a few hours or a few days later. These collective returns without consideration of individual circumstances are prohibited under international and European human rights law. Nevertheless, the push-backs are executed again and again, based on the collaboration of the Macedonian military, Greek police, and European border guards from cooperating countries, such as Austria, Serbia and Slovenia. People are caught by European or Macedonian border guards in Macedonia, and returned to Greece either directly or after a short stay in one of the camps in Macedonia.

Moving Europe discussed the border closure, the push-back policies and their implementation with D., A., N. and S., a family from Aleppo who arrived in Greece in late February, a few days before the complete closure of the Greek-Macedonian border. Since then, they have been pushed back or prevented from crossing the Greek-Macedonian border five times. The first time was during the so-called March of Hope on 14 March 2014. The family marched with a big group of people, crossed the river, and continued walking. However, they were stopped by police and military, who threatened them and ordered them to return to Idomeni, leaving no choice but to go back. As the hopes for legal options to leave Greece are continuously destroyed, the family has repeatedly tried to cross Macedonia on irregular routes this month. The authorities prevented them from doing so 4 times in less than 2 weeks: Once caught by Macedonian military and directly returned through a hole in the fence, once caught by European police officers and handed over to Macedonian military, once prevented from leaving Greece in the first place due to heavy patrols on the Macedonian side, once prevented from leaving due to heavy patrols on the Greek side.

Read the full testimonies:

3 – 4 May 2016

„We were in a group of around 30 people. We walked on Greek territory for around 30 minutes, it was no problem to pass the Greek police, they did not really care. But the path on the Macedonian side is very hard, walking up and down in the mountains and through the forest, it was difficult and tiring. We managed, but there were also around 12 babies and an old woman in our group. We had to stop for breaks and for rest again and again, and we were much slower than planned. At around 4am, we had to stop and wait hidden in the mountains until the morning. But the babies were crying, we tried to calm them down, but it was impossible. At around 12am, three Macedonian border guards detected us. They told us to get out of the mountains, put us into military cars, and returned us to the border fence, to one of the points where the fence has a hole. We had to climb through the hole back to Greece, and afterwards we had to walk all the way back to Idomeni.“

6 May 2016

„We tried to cross the Greek-Macedonian border again, but there were too many Macedonian soldiers. We walked and waited alongside the border for many hours, but we could not cross because the security controls were too heavy. Cars were coming and going all the time, and there were many soldiers. We tried until around 5am in the morning, then we had to go back to Idomeni, we were very tired.“

8 – 10 May 2016

„This time we were in a big group of around 115 people. The way was very long, we had to walk for many many hours, through the mountains and the forest. We started around 10pm and walked until around 7am in the morning. Then we had to sleep in the mountains, waiting there until around 9pm at night. Then we had to start walking again, walking and walking, I cannot even express how hard it was to walk the hard ground in the night, and we had to be quick. Again we walked all night, until around 5am. When we finally found the highway, we stopped and waited for the car to come pick us up. After a while, a car approached us with flashlights on, and the person who was guiding us thought it is the next person to come pick us up, and he stopped the car – but he was wrong. The car stopped, the door opened, police came out, and screamed at us, asking us what we are doing here. I tried to hide in the bush, they pushed my husband and he fell on the ground, my son tried to run away, my daughter stayed where she was. Some people from our group ran away and managed to escape. But others stayed, because we had three children with us. The police who caught us was not Macedonian military, we think they were European border guards. Their uniforms were dark blue, and had the European Union logo printed on the side on their arms. They were not speaking in Macedonian to each other, but in English and other languages. It is the European police who catches people, and then they call the Macedonian military to bring everybody to the camp.

On the way to the camp in the Macedonian military car, the car stopped, because the police had caught another group of people who were trying to find the way by themselves. One of the cars standing on the street had an Austrian numberplate. The car had a big monitor and a big light and a device to screen the forest. We saw how the Macedonian military was beating the people, and the European guards were just standing by and watching and not doing anything. Then they were also put into the Macedonian military car to be brought back to the camp. The European border guards catch the people, but they don’t dirty their hands, it is the Macedonian military who beats people and returns them to Greece.

Then the military cars drove everybody to the camp. We arrived around 6am in the morning, and had to stay all day. The camp is very close to the border. In the front, there is one big tent for those who are caught and who will be returned to Greece. At the back, there is another camp, which is like a prison, where people cannot get out. Nevertheless, the people try to escape and go to Serbia, but many of them are caught and brought back. There is food and some organisations and doctors in the camp, but still it is like a prison, without any independent monitoring. In the camp, we asked if it is possible to ask for asylum in Macedonia. They said yes. So we said that we want to apply for asylum. Their response was: ‚No, not for you‘. While we were waiting in the tent in the camp, we saw three young men arriving, one of them was very bruised in his face. We asked him what happened. All he said was: ‚the police‘. They probably tried to run away, and running away is dangerous. We also saw how the police hit an Afghan man who tried to hide and run away.

Later in the evening, investigators came to question the men who were caught in the forests. They took photographs and checked their mobile phones. They took some of the young men inside and questioned them even more.

Eventually, the Macedonian officials took us back to the border, to a hole in the fence, and told us to go. My husband said: ‚See you tomorrow‘.“

12 May 2016

„We left Idomeni around 7pm in the evening. After one hour, we realised that two men were walking behind us – it was Greek police. They had never tried to stop us from crossing the border before, but this time, they screamed ’stop, stop, stop!‘. They were very rude with us, they made us stop, and pointed their guns at our faces, when somebody tried to run away they shot a bullet in the air. After about half an hour, a big police car came, and they made us walk back to the camp next to the police car. The police car was driving in front of us, but we had to walk for two hours under the rain without rest, until we reached Idomeni, exhausted and very tired. The smuggler allowed us to take rests when we needed, but the police did not allow us to rest for one second.“

„We will continue trying. We did not leave everything and sell our house in Syria to live in a tent“.