Greek police have begun to clear Europe’s largest informal refugee camp, where thousands of people have been stranded for months.
About 400 riot police entered the camp at dawn on Tuesday to order the approximately 8,500 camp residents to leave. By sunset, around 2,000 had left voluntarily in 42 government buses for government-run camps, but thousands were still left in Idomeni overnight.
As the day drew to an end, Katy Athersuch, a spokesperson for Médecins Sans Frontières at the camp, said: “It’s still a non-violent situation, but it doesn’t mean it’s a normal situation. It’s not like people are being asked, they’re being told. There’s a very heavy police presence, with police telling people to leave – and then bulldozers coming to push over their tents.”
Idomeni was the informal crossing point through which hundreds of thousands of refugees entered Macedonia in 2015. Refugees started camping there when the Macedonian government began shutting the border to certain nationalities last November. Once the border shut entirely in March, the site became a full-scale camp, and an emblem of Europe’s failure to manage the refugee crisis.
The Greek authorities have tried for weeks to transfer people from Idomeni to formal camps north and north-west of Thessaloniki, in former factories and warehouses. Aid workers said this constituted a seminal moment in Europe’s refugee response.
“What is happening signals the start of the establishment of medium- to long-term camps on European soil,” said Melanie Ward, associate director of policy and advocacy at the International Rescue Committee. “This poses the question: how long do we expect people – so many of whom have fled war and conflict – to be living in tents in refugee camps in Greece?”
Greece’s migration spokesman Giorgos Kyritsis said that, though rudimentary, the new camps had electricity, running water, telephones, shower and toilet facilities.
“Seven of the shelters are in industrial buildings and two are open-air tent sites,” he added. “Tents and office-style cubicles will be used for the privacy of families. Some will have air-conditioning and food will be provided.”
Many refugees, however, have been reluctant to leave because some still hope that the border will reopen. Others intend to cross with the help of smugglers; still more are frightened of being locked inside hurriedly finished government-run centres.