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Greece begins evacuation of Idomeni refugee camp

Sakis Mitrolidis, AFP | People board a bus to leave Idomeni, a makeshift refugee camp on the Greek-Macedonian border, on May 23, 2016.

Greek authorities began an operation at dawn Tuesday to gradually evacuate the country's largest informal refugee camp of Idomeni on the Macedonian border, blocking access to the area and sending in more than 400 riot police.

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The government's spokesman for the refugee crisis, Giorgos Kyritsis, said Monday that police would not use force, and that the operation was expected to last about a week to 10 days.

The first six buses, which police said were carrying a total of 340 people, left Idomeni just over two hours after the operation began, heading to a new refugee camp near Greece's main northern city of Thessaloniki.

“Everything’s really calm, there’s no tension, the police are good with the migrants and are warning them about the evacuations,” Fergus Glynn, a doctor for the non-profit organisation Doctors of the World and one of the few people allowed inside Idomeni as the evacuation got underway, told FRANCE 24.

Most volunteers working at the camp were asked to vacate the premises while it was being evacuated. Journalists were also barred from the area and asked to wait at a roadblock a few kilometers away.

“We weren’t allowed to stay. Volunteers were told they would be arrested if they didn’t leave. So we’re waiting outside the camp,” Abigail Holman, an American volunteer at the camp, told FRANCE 24.

“There were rumours all day Monday about the evacuation, and we saw more refugees than usual outside the camp,” Holman added. “A lot of them were looking for smugglers in the hope of crossing the border.”

Volunteers wave an emotional goodbye as a bus evacuates refugees from the Idomeni camp on the Greek-Macedonian border.
Volunteers wave an emotional goodbye as a bus evacuates refugees from the Idomeni camp on the Greek-Macedonian border.

The camp, which sprung up at an informal pedestrian border crossing for refugees and migrants heading north to Europe, is home to an estimated 8,400 people – including hundreds of children – mostly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

At its peak, when Macedonia shut its border in March, it housed more than 14,000, but the numbers have declined as people realised the border was shut and began accepting authorities' offers of alternative places to stay.

“It’s very depressing for many of them to leave the border. But at the same time, they have fewer illusions. There were rumours last week that the borders would be re-opened, but they are well aware it won’t come to anything,” Glynn said.

In Idomeni, most have been living in small camping tents pitched in fields and along railroad tracks, while aid agencies have set up large marquee-style tents to help house people. Greek authorities have been sending in cleaning crews regularly and have provided portable toilets, but conditions have been precarious at best, with heavy rain creating muddy ponds.

In recent weeks, 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.

Police and government authorities say the residents will be moved to newly completed official camps.

View of security froces fromt the cultural centre at the Idomeni refugee camp on  May 24, 2016.
View of security froces fromt the cultural centre at the Idomeni refugee camp on May 24, 2016.

'What will we do?'

More than 54,000 refugees and migrants have been trapped in financially struggling Greece since Balkan and other European countries 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 short but perilous sea crossing to Greece, where many have died after their overcrowded, unseaworthy boats sank. Under the deal, anyone arriving clandestinely on Greek islands from the Turkish coast after March 18 faces deportation back 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 six-year deep financial crisis that has left unemployment hovering at around 24 percent.

Security forces inside the Idomeni refugee camp as it is evacuated on May 24, 2016.
Security forces inside the Idomeni refugee camp as it is evacuated on May 24, 2016.

Greek authorities are also eager to reopen a railway line – the country's main freight train line to the Balkans – that runs through the camp and has been blocked by protesting camp residents since March 20.

The government has been trying to persuade people staying in Idomeni to leave the area and head to organised camps. This week it said its campaign of voluntary evacuations was already working, with police reporting that eight buses carrying about 400 people left Idomeni Sunday. Others took taxis heading to Thessaloniki or a nearby town of Polycastro.

On the eve of the evacuation operation, few at the camp appeared to welcome the news.

"It's much better here than in the camps. That's what everybody who's been there said," Hind Al Mkawi, a 38-year-old refugee from Damascus, told The Associated Press on Monday evening.

"It's not good ... because we've already been here for three months and we'll have to spend at least another six in the camps before relocation. It's a long time. We don't have money or work – what will we do?" she said.

Abdo Rajab, a 22-year-old refugee from Raqqa in Syria, has spent the past three months in Idomeni, and is now considering paying smugglers to be taken to Germany clandestinely.

"We hear that tomorrow we will all go to camps," he said. "I don't mind, but my aim is not reach the camps but to go Germany."

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

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