IDOMENI, Greece (AP) — It grew to the size of a small town, becoming a symbol of Europe's closed border policy for migrants and refugees. On Tuesday, Greek authorities began to dismantle it.
Starting at dawn, police moved more than 2,000 people out of Idomeni, the sprawling makeshift camp on the Greek-Macedonian border, and sent in bulldozers to begin erasing the tent city.
The move definitively dashed the dreams of the thousands who had camped there for months in the hope of eventually being able to reach the continent's wealthy heartland.
The refugees — many from Syria and Iraq — had stubbornly resisted government efforts to leave the site voluntarily, braving torrential rainfall and winter weather.
On Tuesday, they were placed on buses and taken to newly built shelters set up by the army and local authorities as the government promised to clear the site of the remaining 6,500 people over the next week.
More than 700 police officers were deployed in the operation. Authorities posted helicopter footage of the evacuation on the Internet but journalists were banned from approaching the site.
Emad Hawary, a 50-year-old Syrian, fled on foot with his wife and two daughters to avoid being transported out.
"The police were everywhere and it was quite scary," he said after seeking refuge at a nearby gas station. "We don't want to go to a shelter. It's just another field."
Hawary said the family was still determined to reach northern Europe and their son who is already in Germany.
The prospects of that are dim, however.
At its peak, when Macedonia shut its border in March, the camp housed more than 14,000, but numbers have declined as people began accepting authorities' offers of alternative places to stay.
Most were living in small tents pitched in fields and along railroad tracks, or in large marquee-style tents set up by aid agencies to help house people. Greek authorities regularly sent in cleaning crews and provided portable toilets, but conditions were precarious at best, with heavy rain creating muddy ponds.
Recently the camp had begun taking on an image of semi-permanence, with refugees setting up small makeshift shops selling everything from cooking utensils to falafel and bread.
In Geneva, UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said the evacuation appeared to be taking place "calmly," and the U.N. refugee agency was sending in more staffers.
"As long as the movement of people from Idomeni is ... voluntary in nature (and) we're not seeing use of force, then we don't have particular concerns about that," he said.
"It often does help to move people into more organized sites, when they're willing to move to those places," he added.
The government opted for tougher action after creating more shelter space in recent weeks at former army facilities and disused industrial sites. It also wants to reopen the country's main freight rail line to the Balkans, which runs through the camp and has been closed for two months.
"The government will not use violent means. It's a very large operation and everything must be kept safe," Giorgos Kyritsis, a government spokesman on immigration, told private Real FM radio.
More than 54,000 refugees and migrants have been trapped in financially struggling Greece since countries further north shut their land borders to a massive flow of people escaping war and poverty at home. Nearly a million people have passed through Greece, the vast majority arriving on islands from the nearby Turkish coast.
In March, the European Union reached an agreement with Turkey meant to stem the flow and reduce the number of people undertaking the perilous sea crossing to Greece, where many have died when their overcrowded, unseaworthy boats sank. Under the deal, anyone who arrives clandestinely on Greek islands from the Turkish coast after March 18 faces deportation to Turkey unless they successfully apply for asylum in Greece.
But few want to request asylum in the country, which has been struggling with a deep, six-year financial crisis that has left unemployment hovering at around 24 percent.
Melanie Ward of the of the New York-based humanitarian agency the International Rescue Committee said Tuesday's police action was a result of European Union reluctance to follow through with commitments to relocate refugees from Greece to other member states.
"What is happening signals the start of the establishment of medium- to long-term camps on European soil," she said.
"Why, two months after the EU-Turkey deal, has so little progress been made on the asylum and relocation process?" she added.
Associated Press writer Elena Becatoros in Athens contributed to this report.
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