Thousands of migrants wait at the Greek border town of Idomeni, where they wait to cross into Macedonia.
By Julien Anseau, ChildFund Global Communications Manager
Julien Anseau has worked with ChildFund in Asia and specializes in emergency communications. In January and early February, he joined our assessment team as they traveled through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia and Serbia to take stock of needs among Afghan, Iraqi and Syrian migrants, particularly children. In Julien’s second report, he speaks with people at camps in Greek and Macedonian border towns.
Since the events described here, in the past week violence has broken out in Idomeni, Greece, because of a bottleneck caused by Macedonia’s new daily cap on the number of migrants allowed into the country, as well as other restrictions. Thousands are now stranded in Idomeni and nearby camps, causing serious tension and questions about what will happen next.
In Idomeni, 350 miles north of the Greek capital, thousands of migrants are waiting to cross the border into Macedonia. Only a few hundred are permitted to cross the border at a time, yet more and more buses continue to drop off migrants eager to keep moving and reach their destinations. A Greek policeman tells me, “Today is busy. Very busy. As always. Five thousand people are waiting to cross the border. We can only accommodate 1,200 in the camp. And still they keep coming. There is no end in sight.”
Families sit and wait around the train tracks and in the surrounding fields. Some sleep around the dying embers of a fire; others hang their washing while children play soccer. Many line up for medical assistance, warm clothes and food for their children. The long journey is starting to take its toll on people, particularly women with children, disabled people and the elderly. People are exhausted and lost. An Iraqi woman with four children tells me she wants to give her children freedom and a brighter future.
In Idomeni, only a few hundred migrants were permitted to cross the border at a time, and now there are further restrictions by Macedonian authorities.
In one corner of the overcrowded camp, amid the chaos one can hear the laughter and singing of children. ChildFund’s partner organization, Terre des Hommes, a group of Swiss non-governmental organizations focused on children, provides a child-friendly space staffed by social workers, psychologists and translators.
Under the supervision of caring adults, children draw, play and sing — activities that help them cope with stress. The center is well-equipped with toys, drawing supplies and child-sized tables and chairs. It also has a private room for mothers to breastfeed, change diapers and rest.
Mazen, a 15-year-old Syrian boy traveling with his uncle, proudly pins his drawing on the wall. They want to go to Germany. They have a phone number for some relatives there, but they don’t know the name of their city. Mazen dropped out of school and hopes to complete his education. He is the oldest child in his family and the only one his father could afford to send away.
Seventeen-year-old Amani is also from Syria. She is traveling with her cousins, and they are on their way to Sweden, where her brother lives. She is both excited and scared about her uncertain future. Like many others, she has left part of her family behind in Syria.
UNICEF reports a growing number of children traveling without a parent or guardian; they are claiming asylum in Europe as unaccompanied minors.
Kyriaki, a social worker with Greece’s Association for the Social Support of Youth (ARSIS), explains how her organization assists young migrants: “We coordinate with La Strada, an organization on the Macedonian side, in ensuring unaccompanied children safely cross the border. ARSIS sends lists of names and photos to La Strada and asks the unaccompanied children to walk across the border hand in hand. The group is then picked up by La Strada on the other side and taken care of in Gevgelija camp.”
La Strada International is a network of non-governmental organizations addressing human trafficking in Eastern Europe; its member group in Macedonia works in the Gevgelija refugee camp near the border of Greece. Stojne, a La Strada social worker, has heard many heartbreaking stories, especially from the youngest migrants.
A young girl shows a drawing she made at the Gevgelija refugee camp in Macedonia. Photo by Open Gate – La Strada Macedonia.
“I’m a humanitarian aid worker, but I’m still a human being, and I can’t help but be touched by people’s stories,” she says. “I recall meeting a 16-year-old boy who fled Syria because he didn’t want to be recruited as a child soldier. His father gave him his life savings so that he could make it to Sweden. He left behind his parents and five brothers and sisters, including one sister critically injured after a bomb blast. He carries the responsibility on his young shoulders to make a go of it in Sweden so that his family can join him later. He was very stressed out.
“I hear these stories every day. I know I cannot solve all the problems and help everybody, but I try my best to make a difference as much as I can.”
The number of migrants, including children traveling alone, is expected to rise later this year as weather warms, experts predict. To protect young migrants, ChildFund child protection adviser Maggie Zraly says, improvements are needed in child-friendly accommodations and identification processes for unaccompanied children and those separated from family members during their journey. Children also need legal aid assistance, accurate information and referrals to people and organizations that can help them reach safe and stable homes.
Meanwhile, in Macedonia, Stojne has noticed a new — and more vulnerable — wave of migrants arriving.
“Before, it was mainly men traveling,” she says. “Now I am seeing more and more children, with families or alone. I am also seeing more and more elderly and disabled persons. The situation in their countries must be terrible for them to leave and embark on such a long and dangerous journey.
“People are tired. They just want to arrive. Migrants are grateful to the staff in the camp. They just want a better life.”
Read Julien’s first story, and stay tuned for a third post next week.