Refugees and migrants attempting to pass through the tiny village of Idomeni near Greece’s border with Macedonia are paying the price for the introduction of ever more restrictive border policies by countries further north.
By Tania Karas in Idomeni with pictures by Dimitris Tosidis
Over the weekend, thousands of refugees and migrants were forced to sleep outside in temperatures that dipped to -8 degrees Celsius as Macedonia allowed only small numbers of refugees to cross its border with Greece.
There is a strong sense among those waiting at the border that they may be among the last allowed into Europe.
Thirty-year-old Mohammed and his wife Reem, 27, from Baghdad, spent Friday night in an aid tent, huddling under blankets as they waited for Macedonian authorities to reopen the crossing.
The couple – he a computer engineer, she a translator – had only been willing to put up with Iraq’s deteriorating security and economy for so long. They felt the doors to Europe, their escape hatch, might be closing, so they decided to act fast.
"At first, we wanted to wait until the spring," said Mohammed, who asked that his last name not be used. "But the situation in Europe is escalating, especially after the attacks in Cologne.
"Many, many countries are closing their borders. So we left Iraq on Tuesday, and it's been boom-boom-boom, flying through as fast as we can until we get to Germany."
Indeed, major changes are afoot as European leaders become increasingly desperate to stem the flow of refugee arrivals before spring, when another spike in numbers is expected.
Last week, Austria, which received some 90,000 asylum seekers in 2015, became the first European country to set a cap on how many it would accept in the future. Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann said the country would limit applications to 37,500 this year and 127,500 by mid-2019. Only refugees wishing to seek asylum in Austria or Germany will be allowed into the country.
The announcements set off a chain reaction among countries along the Western Balkan corridor into Europe. Seeking to avoid bottlenecks in their own countries, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, and Macedonia all announced similar control measures, saying they would deny entry to people seeking asylum anywhere else besides Austria or Germany.
Greek officials at the transit camp in Idomeni have become the de facto implementers of any new policies announced further up the Western Balkan route. In early December, for example, violent mass protests broke out among the thousands of people stranded at Idomeni following a November decision by several Balkan nations to only admit Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis.
On Thursday, Greek police set up a mobile office at the transit camp to ask people where they plan to apply for asylum. Refugees and migrants must now wait outside in sub-zero temperatures for their hartia (Greek for 'papers') to be stamped and labelled with their final destination. Those who state they are heading to Germany or Austria are sent to wait in tents until Macedonia briefly reopens the border again.
So far, unsurprisingly, everyone has been giving Germany and Austria as their final destination. As yet it is unclear what the repercussions may be if they later try to proceed to another country.
The Idomeni camp, which has capacity for 1,200 people, is equipped with giant heated tents, showers, food, blankets, warm clothing, and separate spaces for particularly vulnerable refugees. But since last month's protests, Greek police have been forcing buses carrying refugees to Idomeni from Athens to stop at a petrol station 20 kilometres away, ostensibly for crowd-control reasons. Fewer than 300 people are allowed into the camp at a time. For the past several nights, this has forced more than 2,500 people to sleep at the petrol station – often outside on the ground in below-freezing temperatures.
"We are begging the police to let us use the camp, but they won't let us and won't say why," said Gemma Gillie, a spokeswoman for Médecins Sans Frontières at Idomeni. She shuttles between the camp and the petrol station where the owners have allowed the medical charity to set up six tents. Other aid groups have not been allowed to provide services there.
NGOs and volunteers working at Idomeni say they fear what will happen when Austria reaches its quota. Nearly 45,000 migrants and refugees have already arrived in Greece since the beginning of the year, despite harsh winter conditions. The vast majority will have transited through Austria in order to reach Germany or other destinations in western and northern Europe. About 6,000 have applied for asylum in Austria so far in 2016, according to Karl-Heinz Grundböck, a spokesman for the interior ministry. The chancellor's office is seeking legal opinions on whether Austria can keep out additional asylum seekers once this year's limit of 37,500 is reached.
German President Joachim Gauck said last week that a similar limit was "extremely likely" for Germany this year.
"For everyone who can't cross, where are they going to go?" asked Gillie. "It's already hard enough to get people's basic needs met."
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has warned that his country risks becoming a 'black box' for refugees as migration flows continue unabated and other countries seal their borders.
The majority of the more than one million refugees and migrants who crossed the Mediterranean to reach Europe last year, came via Greece, a country already struggling to recover from a protracted financial crisis. Greece is facing a new round of threats from other member states that it will be forced out of the EU's passport-free Schengen zone if it does not start doing more to control the EU’s external borders.
European interior ministers were due to discuss new border measures, including the possibly of temporarily excluding Greece from Schengen, at a meeting in Amsterdam on Monday.
But at Idomeni, aid workers and volunteers say it is refugees and migrants who will pay the ultimate price for Europe's quotas and fences, with many being forced into the hands of smugglers.
"When you have people who will do anything to reach their final destination, it's quite simple that they will need to find other routes, and these routes are usually [with] smugglers," said Alexandros Voulgaris, who heads the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) field unit at Idomeni. "They are desperate. So they will find a way."