18 March 2016
Freezing temperatures, incessant rain, endless waiting, shortage of food, water and health care: this is the daily life of thousands of refugees blocked at the closed Greek-Macedonian border. Almost a month has passed since Austria decided to put a cap on the daily number of refugees and migrants allowed into its territory, creating a cascading effect on the “Balkan route” countries and leaving several thousand refugees stranded at the northern Greek border.
On Monday 14 March, hundreds of refugees blocked at the Greek border camp of Idomeni decided to try to enter the FYROM on foot using another crossing. The group appeared to be following instructions from a leaflet that had been handed out at the Idomeni camp. The march, dubbed the “March of Hope” on Twitter, set off from Idomeni and reached the Reka river where refugees attempted to cross the river in a chain with the help of a rope tied to the river’s sides. Sources reported that the Greek authorities did not try to prevent the group from crossing, while the Macedonian police arrested more than a hundred refugees and around 80 activists and journalists who managed to cross. They were fined for “irregular crossing”. The Macedonian authorities later forcibly returned all refugees back to Greece. Earlier on Monday, a group of around 20 people had tried to cross at the same spot, resulting in the death of three people, including one pregnant woman.
Both the Greek and Macedonian authorities are accusing activists and volunteers of organising the initiative and endangering the lives of refugees, and investigations are now being carried out to identify who is responsible. “The first principle of any humanitarian assistance should be to do no harm to those we seek to help. Period” commented Human Rights Watch’s Peter Bouckaert, reaffirming the importance of preserving refugees’ dignity and ensuring that they can easily access asylum procedures.
Greek Deputy Defence Minister Dimitris Vitsas recently announced that refugees will be invited to move from Idomeni to other facilities across the country where their basic needs will be met.