The makeshift refugee and migrant camp in the Greek village of Idomeni, near the Macedonian border, was evacuated at the end of May. Most of its 10,000 occupants have been transferred to other, supposedly better organised camps in Greece or have settled in rented homes. But many of them decided not to resettle and to set up their tents in new locations, on the outskirts of the Athens-Thessaloniki road.
The most common reason invoked for refugees in Greece not wanting to move from the illegal camps where they have lived for months to government holding centres is that they want to stay close to the borders in case they open and can be crossed. This has been the main reason why three months ago they stationed themselves close to borders in villages such as Idomeni, situated a mere five kilometres from the entry point of Gevgelija in Macedonia.
However, three months have passed since then, and many of the refugees have lost hope that the borders will ever open to them again. Yet, despite the harsh living conditions they still prefer to stay where they are rather than going to official camps because:
- They are not able to choose their destination camp and have no idea where they are being sent. Over the past months they have built themselves a social network which, however fragile, is all the social life that they have at the moment. Adults and children have made friends, individuals have supported and helped each other, new couples have formed. They fear that they may be sent randomly to different camps and may be separated from friends and even from family members.
- They are concerned by possible promiscuity and lack of privacy. The new camps are reportedly either former military bases or abandoned industrial premises which will be filled and lined up with army tents close to each other. Not that the camps like Idomeni offer much privacy but at least people could choose where to plant their tent, to organise themselves in groups and to move from one area to another if they wanted to.
- They worry about food. About its scarcity as well as its lack of diversity. Greek NGOs serve three meals a day but they are repetitive (lots of macaroni) and not necessarily to the taste of people of different nationalities who live in the camps. It might sound trivial, but we all know how eating well is important not only for health but also for morale. In open camps, the most entrepreneurial of the refugees have opened little food stalls selling everything from fresh vegetables and fruits to traditional cooked food such as falafel, kebabs or sweets. Those who cannot afford to buy cooked food still cook their own on small gas stoves or on wood fires. Women and children are often seen roaming around the fields harvesting herbs and berries. This not only adds to their daily diet but also keeps them busy and gives them a feel of real life and of sharing.
- What if there is no wifi? Having wifi is vital because it enables refugees to communicate with their family, relatives and friends but also to keep themselves informed and entertained. Proper internet connections are vital as most of the asylum application process happens online, including the very first step, which is to arrange an appointment with the Greek Asylum Service through a Skype call. In Idomeni wifi was available in different points such as around the tents of the large NGOs and medical providers. It has been reported that some of the official camps are not yet equipped with wifi. In addition, refugees fear that the authorities can arbitrarily decide to shut down all connections.
- Their children may not receive education. It is unclear if any of the official camps can provide education. Some of them simply do not have the space to open classrooms. There is no official teaching in the open camps but several NGOs such as the Spanish “Bomberos” have been organising academic and playing activities which may no longer be available.
- Their freedom may be restricted. Some camps have already announced that refugees will be free to go in and out but that there will be a curfew. How humiliating is it to an adult to have to be home at a certain time.
- They may not have access to adequate medical care. Medical care in some of the military run camps will be provided by army doctors who have no experience of caring for women and children. Will other doctors be available? Will there be female doctors?
- They fear being forgotten. Only organisations and individuals authorised by the government will be allowed in the camps. Independent volunteers and some media might be forbidden to visit. Many refugees no longer believe what the UNHCR says about their applications to asylum being processed quicker in the official camps. They see no end to their waiting and are scared that the whole world will forget about them and will let them stay there indefinitely.
It is fear of the unknown conditions that await them elsewhere, particularly in light of the conditions they have found on arrival being far below their expectations and, for a large number of people, their struggle for refugee status. It may be that some of these fears, doubts and apprehensions are groundless and unjustified. Except for a limited number of media, some medical staff and some officials, very few people have ever visited any of these government camps.
What refugees know about the camps comes from people who have moved back to open camps, sometimes after just a few days. The only other available sources of information include the channel News That Moves which try to dispel false rumours and to provide objective and verified information and the Facebook page of Are You Syrious, a Serbian-based organisation.
In its defence, the Greek Asylum Service announced in mid-May that it is developing an app for mobile phones that will help disseminate information about the asylum process in Greece. According to News that Moves, researchers of the Department of Informatics and Telematics of the Harokopio University in Athens are developing the software, which will be launched at the beginning of July.
Meanwhile, Greece’s Migration department should probably try to communicate better. It should explain to refugees where they are being taken and what is waiting for them there; describe what facilities and services will be available; make sure that family, relatives and friends are kept together. Spending more on communication may be more efficient and less costly than sending hundreds of policemen in riot gear to evacuate people and to have a helicopter circling the camp for hours.
This story has been published in partnership with The New Continent, a slow journalism, long term project and collaborative platform with the aim to document the stories of people living within or outside Europe’s Schengen borders. The project has been initiated by French documentary photographer Phil Le Gal.