Migrants return to 'Balkan route' to chase European dream

Idomeni (Greece) (AFP) –


The first rays of the morning sun reveal entire families lying on the railway line or in abandoned wagons but when Greek police patrols appear, they evaporate into nearby fields.

Among them is Abdullah, a 20-year-old Syrian, waiting for a train to take him to a better life.

In the buffer zone of Idomeni, on the border between Greece and Northern Macedonia, Abdullah watches for the right moment to sneak on to a train, in the hope of following the "Balkan route" taken by hundreds of thousands of migrants in 2015.

For the last few days he has been camping in a dilapidated building near the train station.

"I will do everything to cross the border," Abdullah told AFP.

The young Syrian has been living for several months in Greece, without work, and "sees no future" there.

"My brother lives in Italy and I want to find him," he says.

During the great migration crisis of 2015, hundreds of thousands of people crossed this "no man's land" on foot to Europe.

But the European dream quickly fell apart. In March 2016, EU countries locked their borders and Greece built a wall along its northern border.

Tens of thousands of exiles fleeing wars, persecution or poverty were stranded in Idomeni, which effectively became a refugee camp, before being forcibly evacuated by the Greek authorities.

Since then, camps on the Greek mainland, and even more so on Aegean islands, have been overflowing with migrants, with new arrivals turning up every day.

And with a surge of 120,000 asylum seekers in Greece today, as many migrants find themselves homeless in Athens as they do on the border with North Macedonia.

"Every day nearly 200 people arrive in Idomeni," says Lazaros Oulis who lives near the border crossing.

"Some have pitched tents in the fields. We are afraid that Idomeni will become a camp again," he says.

Most of the migrants arrived via the land border with Turkey, along the Evros River in northeast Greece.

After tensions with Ankara in March, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the opening of its doors to Europe, Athens stepped up its patrols, with the help of the European border control agency, Frontex.

But hundreds of asylum seekers continue to make it across the Greek-Turkish border illegally every day.

- 'Risk of electrocution' -

In the middle of the night, groups of migrants try to climb clandestinely on a commercial train connecting Greece to North Macedonia or pierce holes in the wall along the border.

"They jump on the train at the risk of being electrocuted by touching the high-voltage cables," said a train driver, who recently discovered 42 stowaways on board.

Of those that get through, most are stopped by the North Macedonian patrols and sent back to Greece.

Pakistani Musa was one who managed to cross to North Macedonia through a hole drilled in the border wall. But he was picked up and complains he was first "beaten by the North Macedonian police, then by the Greeks" when he was returned across the border.

"Where are our human rights?" asks the 19-year-old migrant.

After several failures, dispirited migrants start the 70 kilometre (45 mile) walk to the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki.

"We are going to sleep at Thessaloniki station," says 20-year-old Somali Omar Hassan, before setting off on the long walk.