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Idomeni, the clearing of the largest refugee camp in Europe is under way. The account of a worker of Caritas Hellas

Yesterday authorities began the clearing of Idomeni, the large informal refugee camp on the border between Greece and Macedonia. The evacuation is proceeding without incidents. Some 8.500 people, including many families, with 4000 children from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, will be moved to facilities in the area of Salonicco set up with EU funding. The future of these human lives is yet unknown.

The largest refugee camp in Europe, Idomeni, a tragic symbol of the closing of the “Balkan route”, in a few days will no longer exist. Yesterday, in the early morning, authorities began the evacuation of some 8 500 refugees, including a large number of families forced lo live in inhuman conditions, in makeshift tents, on the border between Greece and Macedonia (Fyrom), in the vain hope that the border will be opened to continue their journey towards northern Europe.

Clearing operations are bound to last a few days, without the use of force (20 riot police units, amounting to 400 policemen). Migrants are being brought by bus to smaller camps near Salonicco, recently opened thanks to EU funding; 46 thousand refugees have reached Greece to date.

NGOs, journalists, as well as countless volunteers from world countries, are being prevented access in the camp, although until now it appears that clearing operations are proceeding smoothly. Obviously none of the refugees intend to return to their home countries, and they all hope that sooner or later they will find a safe place in Europe to settle down, letting go of all fears. Caritas Hellas (Greece), financially supported by the Caritas network (that includes Caritas Italy), has been actively operating in Idomeni for some time already, with the help of seven humanitarian workers and some twenty volunteers who go back and forth from Salonicco with two trucks to distribute food, clothing, shoes, backpacks, personal care products, and diapers to the refugees. Aids will now be sent to the new camps, which however, compared to Idomeni, are lacking basic services – notably healthcare facilities and schools – provided by the NGOs during the emergency. Recently, Caritas Hellas had also begun the distribution of food and vegetables to improve the nutritional intake of migrants especially in view of Ramadan.

The situation in Idomeni was “unbearable” but there are no doctors in the new camps. “It’s a good thing that the camp has been evacuated, in fact the decision was taken too late – said Rino Pistone from Idomeni, Caritas Hellas worker. – The situation was no longer bearable. On Saturday, two workers of a local organization were beaten up. There was no form of control inside the camp, and at night anything could happen. Not even the police dared draw near certain areas of the camp. It was hard to work and to distribute aids. Brawls broke out every day.” However, despite the difficulties, “there was also the advantage-disadvantage of having many NGOs present inside the camp”, Pistone pointed out. “The new refugee-camps are smaller, they are run by the army with less volunteers. Some of them are old sheds or abandoned factories. The situation is more precarious. And there is a shortage of doctors.”

Children and single mothers can file an asylum-request to Greece. Until last evening, some 600 people had been moved to the new camps. The Caritas Hellas worker was present during the first arrivals. “Four buses loaded with migrants, all of them seemed rather calm. But nobody wants to return, they feel disoriented.” In fact, their future is a big question mark. It is yet unknown whether they will be moved to other European Countries, sent back to Turkey on the basis of an agreement with the European Union, or whether they will be able to ask for asylum in Greece. “There is no long-term project – Pistone said -. I have learned that some of them will have the possibility of filing an asylum request in Greece on the basis of various criteria: under 18, pregnant women and single mothers with their children.”

Ongoing uncertainties. Given the uncertainties and the lack of information on the migrants’ rights – including asylum-request procedures and various forms of humanitarian protection –

many of them try to enter Macedonia by passing through the forests that mark the border, risking falling once more in the hands of human traffickers.

Syrian, Afghan and Kurdish families have already made an attempt a few days ago, “and they might try again in the future – Pistone admitted – because some of them manage to pass through. But if they are found they could be beat them up. It has already happened.” As Caritas Hellas, they will now be heading to different camps in Salonicco: to Oreokastro and Niakavala to begin with. “But we will try not to abandon Idomeni until there is still someone there”, he concluded.

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