22 January 2016

The Idomeni border camp managed by MSF has finally reopened on 20 January and refugees can find temporary relief after the perilous journey towards a safer destination.

At the end of the summer 2015, in preparation for the upcoming winter, MSF has assisted the construction of a camp, fully equipped to accommodate more than 1,000 people. The camp, located in Idomeni on the border with FYROM, was ready to provide asylum seekers with heated shelter, food, sanitary facilities, non-stop medical services and psychosocial support. However, since 9 December 2015, Greek authorities prevented refugees to access the camp. Instead, they have been forced to wait hours at Polykastro petrol station, 20 km south of Idomeni, enduring overnight low temperatures in precarious conditions. The closure of the camp followed the decision to allow only SIA (Syrian, Iraq, Afghan) nationals to cross the border. Greek authorities decided to move the rejected asylum seekers, around 2,300 people, to hospitality facilities in Athens on several buses following the dispersal of the border camp last month.

Being denied access to shelter and basic services puts them at heightened risk: vulnerability assessments are more difficult to carry out and the identification of unaccompanied children becomes even more challenging. Many humanitarian organisations operating in the area such as MSF, Save the Children and Médecins du Monde, have issued an open letter, highlighting the risk to which refugees are exposed and urging the authorities to ensure safety and dignity for asylum seekers on the move, in collaboration with the organisations deployed on the field. Among others, Antonis Rigas, MSF Field Coordinator for Idomeni, expressed deep concern: ‘We know from experience how quickly a person’s health can deteriorate when they don’t have access to adequate shelter, hygiene facilities and clean water. The weather is forecast to drop below zero again this weekend and we are truly concerned about what this could mean for those who have no option but to wait there. It is especially frustrating given that there is a suitable camp which could meet all of these people’s needs just 20km away standing empty and no explanation as to why it won’t be used’.

On the first night after the reopening of the camp on Wednesday 20th, some 700 asylum seekers have been provided with hot meals and accommodated in heated rub halls furnished with beds and sanitary facilities. However, the twitter account @MSF_Sea reported that six buses were still blocked at the gas station as of Wednesday evening.

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This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin of 22 January 2016. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.