Thousands of refugees despair as Greek-Macedonian border remains closed

IDOMENI, Greece -- Despair and confusion spread through the camp at the Greek-Macedonian border Tuesday as thousands of stranded refugees were forced to acknowledge that the route through Europe that had carried their hopes and dreams was now shut.

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The dozens of people crammed together at the front of the line to the border crossing looked at the closed gate and razor wire in disbelief. One young Syrian muttered he had been in the tent at the crossing for five days without sleeping. It was his 15th day at the Idomeni refugee camp.

One woman broke down, crying and screaming as she held her baby in her arms while a man tried to calm and comfort her. Refugees asked reporters what had happened in Brussels, and asked what they could or should do next.

European Union leaders who held a summit with Turkey said early Tuesday they hoped they had reached the outlines for a possible deal with Ankara to return thousands of migrants to Turkey, and said they were confident a full agreement could be reached at a summit next week.

They also said the "irregular flows of migrants along the Western Balkans route have now come to an end."

Nobody has crossed through the Idomeni border gate since early Monday morning. The nail in the coffin for the main Balkan migration route came late Tuesday evening, when Serbia's Interior Ministry said Slovenia will demand valid EU visas at its borders as of midnight Tuesday. That means Serbia will act accordingly and close its borders with Macedonia and Bulgaria for those who do not have valid documents.

Nearly 14,000 people, who all risked their lives to get to Greece, have waited for days and weeks in the cold, rain and mud at the overflowing refugee camp in Idomeni, ripping branches off trees to use as firewood.

About 100 people boarded two buses, one Tuesday morning and one in the evening, bound south for Athens and whichever refugee camp might have room for them. Greek authorities have said they will not forcibly evacuate people from Idomeni.

Some said they still had hope.

"I will just wait," said Aslan al Katib, a 21-year-old Syrian format engineering student from Damascus who hopes to reach Germany. "We want to continue our journey."

Al Katib said he had worked for months in Turkey, stacking heavy boxes in a factory making baby strollers, working 12 hours a day, six days a week for little pay, to finance his journey across Europe.

"Trust me, I worked hard for this. And for what? They say 'we are closed, we don't want to let you pass."' He said he wanted to finish his studies in Germany, learn German and then repay Germany by working hard for the country, and ultimately go home to Syria when the war is over.

"It's a bad situation. What are we now to do? What are we waiting for?" al Katib questioned. "I work hard. Just give me security."

Human rights and aid organizations criticized the EU-Turkey plan.

"European leaders have completely lost track of reality, and the deal currently being negotiated between the EU and Turkey is one of the clearest examples of their cynicism," said Aurelie Ponthieu, humanitarian affairs adviser on displacement for the Medecins Sans Frontiers medical aid organization.

"For each refugee that will risk their life at sea and will be summarily sent back to Turkey, another one may have the chance to reach Europe from Turkey under a proposed resettlement scheme. This crude calculation reduces people to mere numbers, denying them humane treatment and discarding their right to seek protection."

Twenty-year-old Samih Samman, 20, from Damascus, said he had been in Idomeni for 15 days.

"I don't know what to do any more. I spend my days in a large tent along with my mother and my two brothers," who are aged 16 and 10. "I hope they will allow at least the families to go through."

The developments came after a particularly miserable night, with strong wind and driving, heavy rain. With the official camp overflowing, thousands of people have set up small tents donated by aid agencies in the surrounding fields and along the adjacent railway tracks. And still more people arrive each day, many walking for miles from a nearby petrol station where buses from Athens stop.

The overnight thunderstorm turned parts of the field into a muddy swamp, with refugees lighting small campfires to dry out their wet clothes and blankets in the morning fog.

"Everything here is like a big casino and they play, dirty play. We are the playing cards. No one looks at us as humankind," Syrian Abu Haida said of the results of the summit in Brussels. "We have dreams, life, children."



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