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Vol. 37 No. 24 · 17 December 2015
Short Cuts

On the Night Bus to Idomeni

Daniel Trilling

Nothing much​ happened on the night bus from Athens to Idomeni. A baby cried, people shuffled in their seats, the driver switched the lights on and told whoever was eating sunflower seeds not to make a mess of his coach. But no one suffocated or drowned; nobody assaulted anybody; no one froze to death or broke down in tears. The ticket agents and the coach owners are entrepreneurs, not people traffickers. The passengers, most of whose journeys had begun thousands of miles away weeks or months before, were for a few hours neither refugees nor migrants, but anonymous travellers. Most of them marked the moment by going to sleep.

I had bought my ticket for the bus one afternoon in late November, from a shop on Victoria Square in Athens, a busy plaza north-west of the city centre. A lot of the shops around here are owned by immigrants: there are Pakistani greengrocers, Syrian cafés and Romanian souvlaki joints. The ticket agent stood out, nonetheless, because its sign was written in Dari, the Afghan variant of Persian. A friend translated it for me: ‘Bus tickets to Macedonia supplied legally. Extra good value.’

For the past few years, Victoria Square has been a gathering point for Afghan refugees, most of them Dari-speaking Hazaras who arrive in Athens looking for lodgings or a route to Western Europe. Until 2011, they would head for the square outside the St Panteleimon Church, five minutes’ walk away, but they were chased out of the area by members of Golden Dawn. Attacks on migrants, in combination with the economic crisis, had pushed many people out of Greece altogether: when I first visited in 2012, the city’s Afghan community association was fielding requests from migrants who wanted to go back to their home country. But since 2014, as the number of people crossing the Aegean from Turkey has soared, the number of Afghans making their way to Victoria Square has risen again too. R, who lived in Greece for eight years before returning to Afghanistan’s Ghazni province, only to come back to Europe this summer, was working for UNHCR as a translator. Eight Afghan translators cover Athens, Piraeus and the islands. ‘We’re very busy,’ R told me. ‘One day last month we had six thousand people arrive at Piraeus.’ The Hazaras were more likely than other Afghans to flee because the Taliban often singled them out for attack.

In August, there were so many people sleeping rough that solidarity activists helped them set up camp in a nearby park; the Greek government, perhaps mindful of the hostility shown to migrants a few years ago, has been trying to move people to ‘guesthouses’ – temporary accommodation in other parts of the city – or into stadiums that have been turned into refugee transit camps. So far, the government has kept most of the refugees out of city centres, but its policy has been based on the assumption that they will only be in Greece for a short while before leaving the country. A law that criminalised the transport of undocumented migrants (in line with an EU anti-trafficking directive) was relaxed earlier this year, allowing companies like the ticket office I visited to advertise its services more openly. It was run by Afghans settled in Greece who were charging €25 for a ticket. One of the men behind the counter waved a wad of dollar bills at me. ‘This, dollar? Malakia [‘shit’]. Causes all our problems.’ During the autumn rush, their daily takings must have been in the tens of thousands.

By the early evening, a few hundred families had gathered in the square with their luggage, waiting to board the bus. At 9 p.m., we were taken to three coaches parked around the corner. Idomeni, our destination, is a village in northern Greece on the border with the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia. There has been a people-smuggling route here since at least 2013, because the valley Idomeni sits in provides a path through the Balkan mountains. The borders were opened in the summer as hundreds of thousands of refugees made their way north. In the days immediately after the Paris attacks, several Balkan republics – Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and Serbia – announced that they would be closing their borders to any irregular migrants who weren’t from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. About 85 per cent of the refugees who arrived in Greece in November have one of these three nationalities; the remaining 15 per cent were to be denied passage. ‘If Serbia sends migrants back to us,’ the Macedonian prime minister declared, ‘we will send them back to Greece.’

Our bus took the main road north from Athens. Around midnight, we stopped at a service station; the passengers got out to stretch their legs, smoke, or have dinner. In the cafeteria, I saw a man who I had said hello to on the bus buying his young son a plate of chips with ketchup. K and his family were from Iran. Eleven of them – K, his wife, their two sons and assorted cousins – had travelled to Europe together, making use of the Dari-language networks that the Hazara had established. K was from Shiraz, he told me, where he had worked as a civil engineer. The family had made a good life, but they’d had a ‘problem’ with the government – he didn’t want to go into details. He said his family were hoping to claim asylum in Belgium. I asked if he thought he would have trouble getting across the border. He didn’t know, he said; he knew there had been problems recently but they would try.

At five in the morning, our bus arrived at Idomeni, pulling up next to a railway track that ran through fields outside the village. Greek police officers were waiting to greet us, their riot vans parked in a row nearby. ‘Move, move,’ an officer barked in English, as the passengers stepped down from the coach and took their bags out of the hold. We were made to walk along a path next to the railway track. It was still dark, and to my left I could just make out the shapes of small tents huddled around trees. On my right I could see some larger canvas structures. Steam was drifting from a vent in the roof of one of them, catching the glare of a floodlight stationed near the police vans. We reached the end of the path and were ushered into a small holding pen marked out by metal crowd barriers. The police let me stand to one side while they made the refugees walk in single file towards a gap on the other side of the pen where two Macedonian officers in camouflage uniforms stood holding riot shields. One of them pointed a flashlight at the refugees as they approached.

For the most part, the document each traveller showed to the Macedonians was a single sheet of A4 paper, with a photo attached, issued by the Greek authorities on their arrival from Turkey. It stated their nationality and warned they had one month to leave Greece. The Macedonian police were making decisions and shouting instructions, again in English, based on the document. ‘Syria, yes. Afghan, yes. Iran, no, go back.’ The rejected were made to turn around and trudge back towards the railway track. There was no room for argument. Darker-skinned people were singled out and asked whether their documents were genuine. Two Afghan men were let through, but a woman travelling with them, who had a baby strapped to her chest, was stopped. ‘I’m Afghan,’ she pleaded, but her sheet of paper was marked ‘Iran’. R, the translator, had told me earlier that on the islands, the process of verifying someone’s identity was sketchy at best. Some Iranians would say they were Afghan, hoping for easier passage, while some Afghans who had been living in Iran for a decade or more would speak Dari with a Farsi accent. The interpreters employed by the authorities were often too busy or too inexperienced to spot such nuances.

K’s family were near the back of the queue. When their turn came, they were turned away without a moment’s hesitation. ‘Why? Are we different from Afghan people?’ K shouted. But he sounded tired. They walked back to the railway track, where some of the people in the tents had woken up and were burning plastic to keep warm. K’s family wrapped themselves in sleeping bags, lay across the railway tracks in a row like sardines, and went to sleep.

While it’s legal for a state to declare people refugees on the basis of their nationality – Sweden and Germany offer asylum to all Syrians on their territory, for example – it isn’t legal to make blanket decisions to exclude people. If K’s family had wanted to claim asylum in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, which is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees, the Macedonians would have had to accept them and assess their claim on its merits. But because, like the rest of the people they travelled with, they weren’t planning to stay in the country, Macedonia has been able to apply a different, blunter policy. In fact, it is following the lead of the EU, which is still trying to keep as many migrants as possible from reaching its borders. At the end of November, EU leaders agreed a deal to give visa-free travel to Turkish citizens by late 2016, in return for Turkey’s agreement to take back thousands of refugees. Almost immediately, the Turkish authorities rounded up 1300 migrants camped out along its Aegean coast, waiting to take boats to Greece. As the focus on security has sharpened since the Paris attacks, the walls of Fortress Europe have grown stronger.

When dawn arrived, I was able to see the full expanse of the camp at Idomeni. Five giant tents bearing the logos of UNHCR, the Red Cross and Médecins sans frontières were set up by the railway track; hundreds of people slept on the floor inside. UNHCR set up this transit camp at the start of 2015. Until recently, most people stayed here for just a few hours before crossing the border, but since the recent change in policy, rejected migrants have been stuck here for days, with no obvious way of leaving. Coaches like the one I travelled on arrived throughout the night and didn’t necessarily provide a return service to Athens. One aid worker I spoke to estimated there were now around two thousand people at the camp and fights had broken out because there wasn’t enough room in the tents. Many were wondering how to find smugglers who could help them continue their journeys. The Greek government was considering laying on buses to take people back to Athens, but it still hadn’t come to a decision. Even if it did, where would the migrants go next? The EU’s much vaunted plan to relocate 160,000 refugees from Italy and Greece has managed to move just 159 people since it was agreed in September. A UNHCR official told me that the Greek state isn’t capable of processing more than ten thousand asylum applications a year. The migrants at Idomeni, she said, had to choose ‘where to be stuck: Macedonia or Greece’.

As more people emerged from the tents, a group of Iranian men who had sewn their lips together in protest a few days ago gathered near the roll of barbed wire that marked out the border and posed, bare-chested, for press photographers who had started to arrive at the camp. A little way off, a group of Moroccan men and women vied for attention, chanting ‘Merkel, help us’ and ‘Open the border.’ They didn’t claim to be refugees; they said they had come because they couldn’t earn a living in their own country. Elsewhere, walking around the muddy campsite, which smelled of burning plastic and leaking toilets, there were people from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Somalia and Francophone West Africa – all now labelled ‘economic migrants’, regardless of their varied and complex reasons for travelling. I bumped into K and one of his cousins, who had come from Tehran. ‘We’re Christians,’ the cousin said, pulling out a wooden crucifix from under his jumper. ‘When the police in Iran see you’re Christian, they beat you. Feel here,’ he said, taking my hand and running it over a bump in his shoulder where the bone had been broken. ‘They did this to me.’

I walked away from the camp, back down the track towards the village train station. It was almost derelict – in the waiting room, faded posters advertising tourism in the Greek islands hung askew on the wall – but someone had turned the old duty-free shop into a café for the migrants. The customers sat at tables on the platform, as if waiting for a train. I’d assumed the station was disused, but later I found out that it’s actually on an important cargo route, for containers carried from Piraeus into continental Europe. The container port at Piraeus was recently sold off to Chinese owners, a privatisation seen as essential to Greece’s – and Europe’s – economic success. That migrants were blocking the route, which serves international clients like Hewlett Packard and Sony, was already causing official concern. Here, in this valley between mountain ranges, three sets of interests had collided: the free movement of trade, the free movement of people in need, and the insecurities of Europe’s settled populations. From Calais, to Idomeni, to the ports of Sicily, the ‘emergency’ responses to this crisis are fast becoming the new norm.

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