A journal from the front lines of the Syrian refugee crisis in Greece
June 3, 2016. Idomeni was evicted last week. It was peaceful. Around 7,000 people were herded by riot police onto buses, shouldering what possessions they could carry. Some left wheelchairs, strollers, and anything that couldn’t fit on the buses. They weren’t given any information or options. Communities were fractured, kids were traumatized once again, and the colorful, muddy camp on the train tracks that had become home to so many was bulldozed within hours.
A brave 16-year-old Syrian girl I know called me from the bus she’d been herded onto. I could hear kids crying in the background. “Where are they taking us? Why are they treating us like prisoners? We didn’t do anything.”
What the hell can you say to that?
I tried to reassure her. I told her that she and her brothers would be on the bus for about an hour. I told her to find out the name of the camp where they were being relocated. When they arrived at their destination—an abandoned warehouse in a distant industrial district—I had her send me a “dropped pin” of her location on WhatsApp, and we were then able to establish where she’d been taken.
Idomeni was closed hastily for political reasons. It’s true that these fields and an old train never should have been home to tens of thousands of people fleeing violence. But the fact that it was home—and that communities sprang up, shops were set up, kids studied English, and extended families sat around cardboard campfires drinking tea together—is a testament to human resiliency. Idomeni was the last place where these refugees were still visible to the outside world. Just by existing there at the closed border, in the largest European refugee camp since World War II, they represented a defiant demand to be seen and heard. They were frustrated and tired, but they were free, and there was a certain power in living en masse. I think that scared the European Union, which pressured Greece with an arbitrary eviction date—well before infrastructure elsewhere was set up to take care of the Idomeni residents.
We had one day of warning before the mandatory eviction began. When the roads to Idomeni were closed, the volunteers and journalists escorted out, and the camp surrounded by hundreds of riot police early in the morning, some people refused to get on the buses. Hundreds, thousands maybe, are still unaccounted for. Some sleep on the streets of the city of Thessaloniki, some live quietly in surrounding forests, and many made the dangerous push across the Macedonian border. The rest have been corralled into the 17 recently set-up army camps in the region.
It’s difficult for me to write about the new camps. I have to remain diplomatic. We are trying to forge relationships with each commander to allow teams of small NGOs access to serve the populations inside.
But these camps are terrible in ways that make me question any faith I had in the broken asylum system. Basic human needs for clean water, privacy, enough food, medical access, and showers are largely unmet. The camps are isolated—rows of army tents hastily put up inside of abandoned warehouses in industrial areas. Kids play on small patches of cracked concrete, food is insufficient, on-site medical support hardly exists, safe drinking water is not always available, and electricity and WiFi are a rare luxury.
I heard that a hunger strike is planned. They’re hoping for more media coverage, but that won’t happen in a compassion-fatigued world. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)—in an attempt to make a political statement against conditions in these camps—is refusing to go in and provide aid, and, by doing so, “validate” the existence of some of these camps. That leaves major gaps in lifesaving services to be provided by volunteers. The big international aid organizations are absent, the Greek system is completely overwhelmed, and stuck in the middle of all of this are these beautiful, resilient, traumatized small kids who are growing up learning how little the world cares about them.
Everywhere I go, refugees tell me that they want to go back to Syria—that a fast death there is better than this slow death in Greece.
This evening, I did a site assessment for one of the worst camps. “We’re treated like animals,” a group of mothers told me through a translator.
An old woman with deq facial tattoos recognized me from an afternoon tea in Idomeni. She approached me, kissed me hello, and begged for insulin. A determined Syrian woman whose husband was killed in bombings at home gave me a tour of the 12-foot-tall pile of industrial waste that lines the side of the warehouse, along with the outhouses that haven’t been cleaned for weeks. “I want to work with you,” she said through a translator. “Can we make this place better?”
Colleen Sinsky worked as a volunteer assisting refugees on the island of Lesvos in 2015. She returned to Greece with the organization A Drop in the Ocean this year.