Refugees keep moving out of Greece's Idomeni border camp

AP News
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Posted: May 25, 2016 8:59 AM
Refugees keep moving out of Greece's Idomeni border camp

IDOMENI, Greece (AP) — Refugees and other migrants boarded buses Wednesday on the second day of an operation to evacuate the sprawling, makeshift Idomeni refugee camp on the Greek-Macedonian border.

More than 700 police were deployed but no violence was reported in the push that began at dawn Tuesday in the camp of more than 8,000 people. Journalists have been banned from the site.

Authorities said about 2,000 people moved out on the first day, leaving just over 6,000 in Idomeni early Wednesday, and by early afternoon at least 430 more had left. The camp's evacuation is expected to last several days, with residents being transported to newly built shelters set up in northern Greece by local authorities and the army.

"It was a calm night," said Vicky Markolefa, spokeswoman for the medical aid group Doctors Without Borders. "What we are seeing is that people are leaving voluntarily. There has been no problem."

But many former Idomeni residents chose to leave on foot for another, smaller informal camp, expressing dismay at conditions in the shelters, and their prospects for eventual relocation elsewhere in the European Union. U.N. refugee agency spokeswoman Stella Nanou said there is room for improvement in some of the new official camps.

"We, as the UNHCR, are willing to help improve the facilities and conditions there," she said. "But at some of the facilities things are not improving."

The evacuation of Idomeni has dashed the dreams of thousands who had been camping there for months in the hopes of eventually being able to cross over the border and continue toward Europe's more prosperous heartland.

But Balkan and European borders have been closed to refugees since March, in an attempt to stem the flow of hundreds of thousands who left Turkey, crossed the sea to Greek islands, then headed north for wealthy European countries.

The border closures have stranded more than 54,000 people in Greece.

Since the evacuation started on Tuesday, some staying at Idomeni left on foot to avoid being transported to official camps and joined another informal camp about six kilometers (3 ½ miles) away, close to the Evzoni border crossing into Macedonia. Up to 400 people are already there, and more were heading in that direction Wednesday.

Ahmad Khayata, 26, a student from Aleppo, Syria, spent Tuesday night in a tent at Evzoni. He plans to pay a smuggler 800 euros ($890) to get him to the Serbian capital of Belgrade, another step in his goal of eventually reaching Germany.

"If I go to a camp, nobody knows how long I will be there," he told The Associated Press. "Some people say it will be for a year, others for six months. At Idomeni, I spent three months just eating and sleeping, but I want to work."

Syrian Jahina Al-Ali, 26, who was walking towards Evzoni, was frustrated with the stumbling process of registering for relocation in other European countries — in which applicants only have an hour a day to make an appointment through Skype.

"Relocation is a big lie," she said. "For the past three months in Idomeni, we've been trying to connect through Skype and haven't managed to. I think we'll stay in Greece forever."