Refugees stranded in Greece await news from EU summit with Turkey

IDOMENI, Greece -- Thousands of refugees stranded on the Greek side of the border with Macedonia were anxiously awaiting news Monday from a European Union summit with Turkey that will seal their fate, as the chokehold on their route into Western Europe tightened.

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Reports swirled in the overflowing camp near the northern Greek village of Idomeni that European leaders will close the border. Although the flow into Macedonia has slowed to a trickle, some are still getting through. Greek authorities said 337 people crossed between 6 a.m. Sunday and 6 a.m. Monday.

One Syrian Kurdish family said they were determined to cross and be reunited with the rest of the family in Germany, no matter what the leaders decide.

"If they close the borders, we will still cross, by any means. Whatever it takes. We will go," said Lasgeen Hassan, 59, from Al Qamishli in Syria. "We have nothing to go back to. Our homes are destroyed."

Hassan's son and two grandsons managed to flee to Germany last year and settled in Berlin, but the rest of his son's family -- his wife and six other children -- stayed behind. Now, they are all stranded in Idomeni.

"They say that we should be reunited. How do I get reunited with my husband? What do I do? What do I go back to? There is nothing to go back to," said his daughter-in-law, 39-year-old Mesgheen Farahan Hassan.

Throughout the camp, the anxiety over what will be decided more than 2,200 kilometres (1,400 miles) away in Brussels was almost palpable, with refugees stopping journalists to ask whether they had heard of any news from the summit.

"If they don't take all the people here and settle us down, the whole world will be in chaos, children will be in chaos," said Hassan Sheikho from Syria. "For four years we haven't been able to raise our children well. Every two-three days in different place, every two-three months, a new place, and then? Solve the crisis in Syria and we'll go back, otherwise, make your decision and we'll be ready."

The bottleneck at Idomeni has left some 13,000-14,000 people stranded in and around the camp, and more than 36,000 people across financially battered Greece, with thousands more arriving each day.

In Idomeni, new large tents have been hastily erected in the last few days, but most people camp along the railway tracks, on the train station platform, in disused railway carriages and in the surrounding fields, their passage blocked by a fence erected by the Macedonians and reinforced by coils of razor wire.

Medical aid group Doctors Without Borders said 4,000-5,000 of those in Idomeni are children. The group said it conducted about 2,000 medical consultations last week, with 63 per cent of the cases involving vomiting, diarrhea and respiratory tract infections, all attributable to the lack of adequate shelter and hygiene.

Accidents also occur. On Monday, a 12-year-old boy was seriously injured after climbing on top of a railway carriage and being hit by electricity from a high-voltage cable overhead. The boy was rushed to a hospital in an ambulance, while two other children were more lightly hurt, local police said.

A strong wind whipped up the dust from the fields as ominous black rainclouds hung above the sprawling encampment, with volunteers handing out rain ponchos. A riot police bus arrived with police handing out bags of clothes to the refugees.

The idea of the borders closing has worried aid organizations, who stress a European plan is needed to deal with the crisis.

"The best way out of here is a European mechanism, to take these people to reception centres, register them and then distribute them according to the agreed European quota," said Babar Baloch, a spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency.

"What Europe needs to wake up to is that there is a humanitarian crisis, here, in Greece, and Greece cannot cope. They need help and these people are desperate people who have been spending night after night over here, hoping they will be able to get across or at least hoping there will be help. They need an answer, a quick answer."

Amer Cohadzic and Khaled Kazziha in Idomeni and Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki, Greece, contributed.


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