Macedonia’s border closures have left thousands of asylum seekers stranded due to bad weather.
Athens, Greece – Clothes are draped in the windows of the once-abandoned Elliniko Olympics site, which now serves as a temporary home for refugees and migrants on the outskirts of the Greek capital.
A constant staccato of cheers and arguments rises from the soccer field, where a group of young men from Iran and Morocco are kicking a ball all day while waiting for the next opportunity to continue their journey across the Europe.
Abedine Khany Kalareh, 45, sits in the stands with his hands crossed on his knees. Wearing shorts and a T-shirt despite the cold weather, he remembers being drenched by rain as he waited seven days at the Greek-Macedonian border hoping to cross.
Kalareh was one of more than 100 Iranians, Moroccans and Algerians who were bused back to the Elliniko center this weekend. Not knowing if Macedonia will open its borders to them again, they are now stuck in limbo.
“It was very cold outside,” he said. “I can’t blame the Macedonian police for not letting us pass, but they were very aggressive. »
With up to 2,500 people stranded at the Idomeni border since Macedonia announced its closure to certain nationalities last week, several clashed with Macedonian border police on Saturday when officers began erecting a metal fence along of the border.
Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia have imposed similar border crossing restrictions.
Constance Theisen, director of humanitarian affairs for Médecins sans frontières (MSF), says that “many people have been forced to sleep outside” because the infrastructure of the Idomeni camp can only accommodate between 1,300 and 1,500 people.
“Since the closure, there have been daily fights between groups of refugees and migrants and some clashes with the Macedonian police,” she explains.
Macedonian President Gjorgje Ivanov said the move was aimed at preventing “tensions” between Macedonians on the one hand and refugees and migrants on the other.
Ivanov claimed that more than 2,000 refugees passing through the country at any given time would pose “permanent and direct threats and risks to national security.”
As borders tighten and close in Eastern Europe, only those who can prove their Syrian, Iraqi or Afghan citizenship are allowed to continue to seek asylum in Western Europe.
Tens of thousands of people fleeing countries in Africa and Southeast Asia have been labeled “economic migrants” and denied passage.
According to Human Rights Watch, by effectively denying people access to asylum procedures, the four Balkan countries are engaging in “collective discrimination.”
“I would rather commit suicide than go back”
“I don’t know why they say we are ‘economic migrants,’” says Kalareh, who is not married and has no children. “We are fleeing the government.”
Originally from Sarpol-e Zahab, the capital of the predominantly Kurdish province of Kermanshah, Kalareh is a member of the Yarsani religious minority. Located in western Iran and eastern Iraq, the Yarsanis are estimated to number between half a million and a million.
Putting his fate in the hands of smugglers and risking his life crossing borders and waterways, he made the journey to Europe in the hope of gaining asylum in the United Kingdom, where he studied in the years 1980.
“I returned to Iran hoping the situation would be better,” he says. “It just got worse. I had no choice but to leave Iran.
“I had a job, I didn’t come to Europe for a job,” he continues. “In every family in my region, a loved one was executed or imprisoned. »
Earlier this month, 36 human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, issued a joint statement calling on member states of the United Nations General Assembly to take action on the death toll Iran on human rights.
The groups cited Iran’s execution of at least 830 people between January 1 and November 1, as well as “members of ethnic and religious minorities languishing in arbitrary detention.”
“For us, we feel religious oppression in Iran. I would rather commit suicide than go back,” says Kalareh. “We accept the risk of drowning or dying during the journey, but the risk is even higher in Iran. »
“Do you know if the border will open?
Sina, a 26-year-old who did not give his last name out of fear for his family’s safety, holds his wife’s hand as he remembers his conversion to Christianity during a trip to Australia three years ago.
As they sit in the hall’s makeshift dining area, images of refugees crossing the border play on the muted television behind the couple. The center is quiet, except for the echoes of children playing in the next room.
“We don’t know anything about the border,” he said. “Do you know if it’s open?” Will it even reopen?
Joined by his wife’s brother, the couple left Tehran two weeks ago. “Iranians are not hungry,” Sina said. “We are not going to Europe for money. We want freedom and we have political and religious problems with the Iranian government.
Estimated to number between 300,000 and 370,000, Iranian Christians are recognized as a religious minority by the Iranian government.
After braving the mountainous border region between Iran and Turkey, Sina and the others took a boat to the Greek island of Lesbos, a transit hub for refugees and migrants en route to Europe.
But when they arrived in Idomeni, Macedonian border guards told them that the border was closed to Iranians. “We slept outside for two days in the cold and rain,” says Sina. “The UN didn’t have enough blankets or tents for us, so we slept outside. »
Sina describes how they had to throw their suitcases overboard as their dinghy filled with water en route to Lesbos. That’s why they’ve been wearing the same clothes for a week, he explains. “I want to at least buy clothes for my wife – I’m fine, I don’t need them – but the UNHCR representative said we have to wait. »
“Tell Macedonia we just want to go through this”
Mehdi, 29, left Iran three weeks ago. After half a dozen cousins and friends, he was the only person in his group who did not cross the Macedonian border before it was sealed.
“I was waiting (in Athens) to receive money from Western Union,” he remembers. However, when he arrived in Idomeni, it was too late. “Tell Macedonia we don’t want to stay there,” he said. “Tell Macedonia we just want to go through this.”
Due to “some problems on the part of the government” for activism-related reasons, Mehdi says he was forced to work in the black market because he was unofficially barred from employment in Tehran.
Refusing to give more details about his situation, he simply adds: “Iranians are good people. We do not want to create problems in Europe. We just want somewhere safe.