TENSIONS MOUNT AT MIGRANT BOTTLENECK
Thousands of refugees are stuck as they await reopening of borders
Zakhir Nair and his wife sit outside their two- person tent, their 14- month- old son between them, trying to take his first steps.
The Afghan family of five, with another child on the way, have been on the road nearly three weeks: walking through Iranian mountains, busing through Turkey, crossing the Aegean Sea on an inflatable boat to Greece, then taking trains and expensive taxis to this remote border post, en route to the promised land— Germany.
“He looks German, doesn’t he,” asked Nair, 40, laughing and pointing to his son, Abu- Muslim, who has fair skin and golden locks popping out of his Adidas hoodie.
Like the 13,000 others at this migrant crossing, they are stuck.
From Athens to the plains of Idomeni in northern Greece, tens of thousands of migrants are scattered throughout Greece, many headed here in the hopes of an open border. For those already here, there is no way to get through: Macedonia and Serbia have closed their borders in an attempt to block “the Balkan route” into northern Europe.
The European Union meets Monday to discuss what to do with the more than 1 million migrants who arrived in 2015 and the million more expected to arrive this year, in an effort to contain Europe’s biggest migration crisis since World War II. Besides pressuring Greece to deport refugees to Turkey, EU leaders will meet with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Brussels to ask his country to do more.
The EU has given Turkey, which already hosts more than 2 million migrants, more than $ 3.3 billion to stamp out smuggling rings and keep migrants in the country.
Here at the center of the migrant bottleneck, the situation is tense.
In the past two weeks, migrants and refugees have been beaten and teargassed by police after riots and protests broke out because of the crowded conditions.
Those here for more than a week stand out because they look more nervous than the newcomers like the Nair family, who have only been here two days.
Two days feels long when the journey has felt frantic and fast- moving, Nair said. And now they worry that the borders won’t reopen.
Still, sitting in this camp waiting for the border to open was the only solution, said Nair, who had sold everything he owned to make this journey. The Taliban and Islamic State militants regularly came to his father’s village and asked him for money. They threatened Nair’s wife, an elementary school teacher. In the end, the Taliban killed his father.
So they sleep with everyone else in this camp, which resembles an open- air concert, with hundreds of tents spread across the plain. They stand with other migrant in long lines for food and coffee. At night, they warm themselves by fires that burn garbage instead of wood, spreading fumes of burning plastic that hang over the camp.
Like everyone else, they hope and pray the border opens soon.
Some say the camp is not so bad. A Syrian- Kurdish family, Ahmet and Hadija Kurdi, have been here longer, for 10 days, with their three children. Though they say they are treated well, they are eager to resume their lives.
After the siege of their hometown, Kobani, in northern Syria, thousands of Syrian- Kurds found themselves without jobs. Ahmet Kurdi was a builder and a pottery worker. The situation was so unstable, they decided to try their luck at reaching Germany.
“The Greeks have been very nice to us. They bring us food and clothes for our children,” said Ahmet Kurdi. “In Germany, where we want to go, I don’t know how it is. We don’t have any family there, but we hear there are jobs.”
For some, this camp is a respite. After traveling and sleeping outdoors for weeks, Nada Suri, 17, of Iraq sits and rests with her mother and older sister.
“Here, we just sleep, eat, sleep and eat,” Nada said playfully, describing her days at the border.
“But at least we left Ramadi,” she added, referring to the city in central Iraq once held by the Islamic State that the United Nations described last week as “worse than any other part of Iraq.”
Nada’s 15- year- old brother, Jacub, slowly makes his way to the family tent.
He gingerly navigates the puddles and mud on crunches. His ankle was destroyed during a bombing, and the family wants to reach Germany and fix his leg.
“The doctors say that here they need to place a titanium plate,” said his father, Shahe, pointing to Jacub’s leg. “It hurts him and it itches, but what can we do? We have to wait here until they open the borders.”
People sit outside tents in the makeshift camp at the Greek- Macedonian border, near the Greek village of Idomeni, where thousands are waiting to cross into Macedonia.