A lot has happened since leaving LesVos, but nothing much has changed.
On both side of the Macedonian/Greek border there are camps, just like the camps in LesVos. And having failed to acquire the relevant green papers to take our hire car into Macedonia, we decide to help out on the Greek side of the border.
It takes a while to figure out the process here. As in LesVos, little of what happens is official, little is regulated, documented or even organized. Apart from the registration process – done by Greek officials – a range of separate voluntary organizations appear to manage everything else. And gaining any kind of overview is like putting pieces of a jig saw together in the dark, where the pieces aren’t necessarily even from the same box.
We start in the warehouse, we’ve got this part down now. Sorting clothes and other donations to send out to the camps.
This warehouse sits in a row of colourful buildings, some occupied, others not, and it’s not always obvious which is which.
And certain ironies do not go unnoticed.
Some boxes are beautifully packed, their treasured contents neatly folded, and others are a little more random. I find myself wondering about the people behind the clothes, touched by their concern and desire to do what they can to help.
And it really does help.
There is a petrol station on the E75, the main road into Macedonia from Athens. It’s exactly like the petrol stations in the UK, with a small shop, a picnic area and a car park. But this petrol station has something that you won’t find on the M40.
Here, there is a camp – right by the side of the road.
And this is where the buses stop.
Set up by UNHCR, but with many voluntary agencies involved, the camp has been known to accommodate as many as 5000 refugees. Together volunteers provide food, clothing, shelter and medical assistance. And most importantly, they provide information.
It may sound odd, but at first I didn’t really understand the purpose of the camp. I could see why the buses might want to stop, for a ‘comfort break,’ it’s a long way from Athens. But after that, why didn’t they continue up the E75 to the border, and be on their way? Why did they need tents?
And now, more than 48 hours later, I think I’m beginning to get a picture of how it all works at this end – for the moment.
The ‘border control’ turns out to be very different to the passport control that you and I would pass through. The refugee border control isn’t situated on the E75, but is an entirely separate operation, constructed especially for refugees.
And the ‘border control’ isn’t accessible 24/7, but rather it opens randomly, and for irregular periods. Sometimes a handful of refugees are ‘processed’ at a time, sometimes more, but never usually more than about 50. And this freshly manufactured checkpoint is situated at a refugee camp just outside Idomeni, just a few kilometres from the petrol station.
And so, when bus loads of refugees arrive at the petrol station, sometimes they are directed straight though to the checkpoint, and sometimes they are held at Idomeni camp. When there is an overflow at Idomeni, the camp on the E75 then comes into play.
This evening it rained heavily, and the volunteers at the petrol station handed out rain ponchos.
Mothers changed babies on their laps.
Some refugees ask me what is happening. How far is it to the border? Will they have to pay at the checkpoint ? How long are the buses going to wait? I answer the first two questions and then do my best to find out about the departure time, but it appears that no-one knows. It all depends, they tell me, on how quickly they are being processed at the border.
I’m confused about why the refugees don’t appear to be receiving any information from the bus drivers. Again, it’s 24 hours befor this becomes clear. The buses, it turns out are no more official than the rest of this shambolic operation.
The buses are not, as I had rather naively thought, part of a larger infrastructure, put in place to assist the flow of refugees travelling up through Greece and across the border. The buses are privately run companies, many of which are making a killing.
One man from Afghanistan told me that since leaving he has spent $5000 (US). The buses charge whatever they wish, there is no regulation. Why am I surprised?
A man wanders off alone,
And a small boy stands and stares at the bus.