A Peaceful Countryside Scene, Only A Kilometer Before Idomeini
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“Turkey shall readmit (…) all third-country nationals or stateless persons who do not, or who no longer, fulfil the conditions in force for entry to, presence in, or residence on, the territory of the requesting Member State provided that (…) such persons (…) illegally and directly entered the territory of the Member State after having stayed on, or transited through, the territory of Turkey.”
Agreement between the EU and Turkey, Article 4
How are refugees kept out of Western Europe?
THE BORDER BETWEEN GREECE and North-Macedonia is rather peaceful. When you look around you, little disrupts the calm scenery. Open fields, tall mountains luring majestically from the other side of the border, a few farms on this side. You could walk across and enter into North-Macedonia without noticing you did. But just below the surface of this quiet scene is the geographical home of a political struggle. The notorious refugee route that saw hundreds of thousands of refugees through the balkans in 2015 ran from Thessaloniki to the border crossing near Idomeini, a collection of houses so small that it’s hardly worthy of the label village, if it weren’t for its railroad connection.
I learned that this is the place to be from a book by Guardian’s first official ‘Migration Journalist‘, Kingsley. His coverage of the peak of the crisis was from this border crossing.
Technically, the border to North-Macedonia could be crossed anywhere. The route through Idomeini is the one I choose because of its historical touch. Idomeini can be reached by foot from Thessaloniki in about 2 days. With the bus it’s 2 hours to the nearest town, Polykastro. It’s the last bus-stop before the border and I plan to walk from Polykastro onwards. An Iraqi refugee who lives and works there messages me saying that migrants still walk this route and it should only take a couple of hours to arrive at the border. As we drive into the small town, I can see him waiting for me from the bus window. I wave. The bus stops at a small city square with a fountain, and two old men on a bench to complete the scene. The Iraqi doesn’t have the time to join me, but does guide me out of the city.
Counter 3 to Polykastro
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There are two ways to reach Idomeini, east or west, and I pick the western trail. It’s closer to the original route. The goal for today is to cross through Idomeini to a little roadside hotel called Hara Hotel, a walk of about 20 kilometres. The hotel has a history. Just in case, I carry the tent with me so that I don’t need to worry about a place to sleep.
It’s only March, but the sun is hot in the sky. As always, it takes me some time to get used to the monotonous rhythm of the walking, the sound of my water bottle sloshing with each step. Soon I leave the last village and am hiking down a quiet country road lined with electricity poles and brown bushes.
The familiar rush of solitude comes over me. As the road takes me over hills, and down into little passes, it obscures all signs of life from the horizon. The thought strikes me that considering all the fears and real dangers refugees face on this road, I understand they prefer doing it together. Besides the practical value of a travel companion, it seems like an indispensable source of moral support.
Walking down this road has been one of my main reasons for coming to Greece in the first place. The longer I read about ‘health determinants in refugee populations’, ‘push and pull factors of migration’, and other academic analyses, the more I felt this great divide between the real people, decisions and places I was so curious about, and the texts that tried to describe them. It was all so abstract and only talking to people who fled to Holland didn’t seem enough. I hope I will never understand what it is really like to be a refugee – knocking on wood – but if I am to work with them, I felt like the least I could do was to walk a mile in their shoes.
The end of the acute phase of the Refugee Crisis at the end of 2016 was not the result of a solution to the Syrian war. Rather, it was because the EU found a way to effectively stop the flow of refugees. How are refugees kept out of the EU? The answer lies in the EU-Turkey agreement, quoted above, and the closure of the Balkan route. The first drastically lowered the number of people entering Greece and the second made it harder for people to move out of Greece, north, to Western Europe.
Because CEAS has no ‘crisis mode’, no standard procedure on how to deal with an inevitable large influx of people, Europe had to decide what to do with them when many entered Greece in 2015. Soon the refugees themselves discovered they could walk out of Greece towards Western Europe. What followed was a complex game of political dominos, in which Hungary built a wall, Austria stopped migrants at its borders and new heights of xenophobia were reached throughout the continent, including non-EU transit countries like North-Macedonia and Serbia.
The flow was halted when the EU and Turkey agreed that Turkey would manage its borders and take back those people who still make it to Greece. In return, a Syrian would be transferred from Turkey into the EU for each refugee taken back. Of course, the system is far from watertight, but the flow of refugees into Greece was brought down to pre-crisis levels.
On the Balkan route, that I was walking towards, borders were simply closed: police no longer turned a blind eye. The masses of people passing through mid-day became a thing of the past. What is left are the few people illegally crossing by night, or in the back of a smuggler’s car.
Do you think this is a good way of dealing with incoming refugees? Is it sustainable? What are the pros and cons? And do you see an alternative?
As I continue, 10km in, I enjoy the most beautiful part of the road. My surroundings are completely quiet, only disturbed by the occasional tweet, or rustle of a bush from a small animal. My legs ache and it’s clear that I’m not going to make it to the Hara hotel before the sun sets. The glowing scenery is incredible though, and I don’t feel worried.
Few cars pass as I walk over hill after hill towards the border
The Railroad that leads to the border, only a kilometre from here
At the end of this road, over the hills, I find the little goat farm, that hosted migrants who walked here before me.
Exit © Fortress Europe
The first signs of civilisations materialise as I reappear on the other side of the dirt road. I’m nearing Idomeini. Only a few more kilometres to go and at least 15 behind me. The sun is hovering over the horizon. An age-old tractor rumbles towards me from behind. At the steering wheel sits an old, plump farmer, cigarette hanging from his lips and his cap lopsided on his head.
When I’m about to set foot in the last village before Idomeini, a bout of crackling laughter stops me in my tracks. I look up. From a terrace, an old, fierce lady waves at me. She must be at least 70, but stands up straight and with a strong voice she calls something to me in Greek. “I don’t speak Greek, sorry! No Ellenika.” And I shake my head. She points at my backpack, and makes heavy gestures. I smile, and tell her it’s alright. “Come, come!” She invites. “Are you hungry?” Of course I’m hungry.
She guides me inside and I drop the backpack on the porch before I follow her in. She disappears into the kitchen and returns with a plate of omelette and homemade feta-cheese. With the help of her daughter I find out I’m not the first person she picked up from the road. She has often invited tired travellers in. They are given something to eat and drink and even a place to sleep if need be. “Are you Syrian?” I’m asked.
In fact, this takes me by surprise. For some reason, I hadn’t expected that migrants would move away from the railroad this far, and use these wide, visible paths. It makes sense, though: If I’ve identified them as a quick way to the border, there is no reason someone else wouldn’t.
Once I make it clear that I’m not a refugee, she understands that I can arrange my own accommodation. “Let us at least call you a taxi to Hara then”, her daughter offers. She moves to the back of the room and I can see her make a couple of phone calls. When she returns, she apologises. “I’m sorry, but the taxi can’t come.”
It is only the next day that I find out why. Frontex, the European border guard agency, controls this area, and the taxi service needs permission from the police to accept a passenger. In the case of a foreign national, the police has to check their passport before they can use the service. Driving an undocumented passenger makes you complicit in smuggling, and you risk years in prison. At this hour, the police isn’t eager to go to take the effort of checking my passport. So the taxi-driver has no choice but to turn me down.
A strange mix of colours at the simple motel. hover over it to see the shop.
Out here is where migrants would spend the night if they couldn’t afford a room.
Exit © Fortress Europe
Instead, the lady’s son-in-law is so kind to drive me to Hara. The motel lies by the highway that leads into North Macedonia, less than a kilometre away from the actual crossing. I only see one other group of people there when I enter, but in 2015, it was busy with migrants. It was the last pitstop before they crossed the border. There is a book, literally called Hara Hotel, that covers the makeshift refugee camp that arose in its parking lot. Richer migrants could book a room inside, and others could still use the little shop next to the reception. The shop is still there (hover over the towel photo above for a quick picture I snapped with my phone). It’s not a topic the owner likes to talk about. “Everyone here has papers.” is the short reply when I ask about migrants.
I check out the room, and when I return, my eyes fall on two people that I hadn’t noticed before. They’re hovered over a neatly set table, tearing off pieces of bread and dipping them into the steaming plate between them. It’s easy to tell they’re not Greek. Curiously, I approach them. “Excuse me?” I carefully ask, interrupting their dinner. They look up, disturbed, and continue eating. It’s clear they’re not interested in talking to me. Yet, when I ask them whether they’re staying here, they’re quick to reveal that they are on their way to cross the border that night. They even go as far as admitting that they don’t have papers on them when I ask.
I can only speculate why they lack all caution. Mostly, they give me the that impression they are in a lot of stress. It’s a surreal scene to be involved in, right before I head back to my room to sleep.
The next morning I wake up sore and tired. The situation around Covid is escalating, and I had spent the evening securing a ticket out of Greece for the next day. That leaves little time to explore the border. On an empty stomach I heave the backpack onto my shoulders, and set off rushing with painful hips, sleep burning in my eyes. With all the excitement I can muster, I follow the highway, trucks passing me at full speed, before turning to the countryside again. I almost fail to spot a trail turning 90 degrees into the bushes. The bushes open up into a steep hillside, the trail worn out by many years of usage and seemingly regularly used. After a few kilometres of walking along tractor trails, I spot the village and its train station.
I’m not sure what I expected to find, but what I see surprises me. As I hike into the village, I wonder where the secret road past the traintracks might be. Then, to my right, I find nothing short of a road-sign. ‘Restaurant Cafe’ it reads, followed by the Arab translation. It leads straight to the trainstation, and from there, a small path continues to the left. Is this it, the road to the border? I wonder. Is it that simple? I enter the restaurant and ask the owner. Unfortunately, they can’t help me. Perhaps a little anticlimactically, I decide this path will be the last thing I explore. Time is running out, and I can’t risk missing my bus from Polykastro to reach the airport on time.
The path I nearly miss
A sign near the border points towards the restaurant, with a translation and its arab name .
Exit © Fortress Europe
Google maps tells me that the path leads to the border, but it’s blocked by what looks like an old, deserted police station, or perhaps a military building. This close to the border, I’m not sure it’s wise to trespass. I will probably never know whether that really was the border, or if I missed out.
On the main road, a taxi is parked in front of a fenced-off house, guarded by a big, violently barking dog. I shout through the fence, to see if anyone’s home. A friendly woman appears. She laughs as she sees me. “You are the girl from yesterday!” She exclaims, and apologises at least three times. “The police just wouldn’t allow it.” She needs to see my passport, and calls to report me to the police. When they give us a green light, she takes me to the police station.
“What are you doing here?” Asks the officer, a plastic cup with iced coffee in his hand. He leans back into his chair. “I’m walking.” I reply. “Where did you come from?” “Polykastro.” I say. He wakes up. “You walked here from Polykastro?” I confirm. “Why?” “Because I like walking.” I say. He clearly doesn’t buy it, but between coffee and a lengthy discussion, he lets it go. “Hmm.” He hands me back my passport. We are good to go. I make it to Polykastro and even have enough time to treat myself to a coffee and royal breakfast before the bus leaves. Early the next morning, I catch a plane to Western Europe.
If there was ever even the slightest resemblance between the journey I walked and that of the ones who walked before me, that resemblance ends right here, in this police station. I’m free to leave.
All the small things I see on this trip – from the potatoes fried over an open fire in Moria to ID dealers in Athens – are the distant result of EU politics. And the politicians themselves agree the system isn’t doing great. In fact, they are busy developing a new one: New Pact on Asylum, currently shrouded in mystery.
To have an opinion about what they are doing, it is important that you develop your own ideas on what such a system should look like. I hope that now you’ve read this, you know that the debate goes deeper than ‘open or close the border’, but looks at complex rules and conflicts on interest between countries.
To develop your own ideas, you can start by keeping your eyes open and asking what exact questions are being debated around you. Then see if you can introduce some of your own questions, develop your thoughts about them and see what others think. And if you get really lost, just send an email to the people who seem to know more: The refugees themselves, EU politicians, your local asylum services. Because I hope you’ve learned through these pages that people are more approachable than you might expect!
Keep in mind, there are no easy answers. The solution doesn’t lie in sending all migrants away, nor in opening Europe’s borders. Your answers will not be sexy ones, but ones that involve boring paperwork, policies, bureaucracy, and, above all, concessions. Ignoring this complexity seems dangerous to me.
I hope that I have inspired you to ask more questions. And feel free to email me when you’ve made some progress!
The very last road before the border, ending in what looks like a military base. I’m not sure this is it.