For Asylum-Seekers, Macedonia Is a Crocodile Pit

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Since June 14, I’ve been traveling from the south coast of Greece toward Berlin, writing about migrants and migration facilitators — the people who help migrants get where they want to go.

My original idea was just to post this photo (above) of the Greek-Macedonian border near Idomeni, and that was going to be my entry on Macedonia. It was going to be a statement about what this little country represents to undocumented people who want to pass through.

But then I thought I would add some facts to make the image hit home. On March 9, the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia closed it’s borders to refugees, from then on out hunting down tresspassers throughout the entire country and forcing them back to the border. They beat people, kick them, break their arms with clubs, teargas them, push them into razor wire — these are the stories I’ve heard.

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Photos: Bordertown Polykastro

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Polykastro, a Greek town near the Macedonian border with about 7,000 residents was the link to civilization for over 10,000 refugees holed up in massive unofficial camps in the area (Idomeni is 15 minutes away) before they were cleared in the last month. And the town was also a link to civilization for as many as 1,000 volunteers who had come in from all over the world to help mitigate a crisis that all the countries of the United Nations have been somehow unable to deal with. Now that the unofficial camps have been closed, the number of refugees in the area has dwindled and so has the number of volunteers. But Polykastro is a different place now. This is Part Three of the story. For Part One, click here. For Part Two, click here.

This is not a portrait of a quiet Christian town without a history, suddenly tossed into the stream of the real by current events. Every town has a history, and if it doesn’t then it will soon.

Polykastro is indeed quaint, it’s monuments sit in empty parks, grass crawling up their legs. There’s a football field and a dozen ice cream parlors. Most people you’ll meet on the street are ethnic Greeks, if that means anything. But in 1900, this was part of the Ottoman Empire, there were more Muslim Turks than Christian Greeks, and the Muslims were the ruling class. Then they fought some local battles, then the Empire collapsed.

Bit this is a portrait of a small, shrinking town, suddenly changed again, if only temporarily, by the massive refugee camps — Idomeni and Nea Kavala — that were pitched in fields nearby.

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Refugees Smuggled Me into a Military Camp to Show Me How They Live

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This is the second part of my visit to Polykastro, Greece, a small town transformed by the refugee camps in the area.

“What are you doing here?” Alaa asked me inside the lobby of the Park Hotel.

I had talked to a lot of people at the Park Hotel — a hang-out for residents of the nearby Nea Kavala refugee camp — but I hadn’t talked to him. A lot of people had just come up to me to make small talk. Alaa seemed somehow too serious for that. Not cold, but serious. I found myself sitting next to him at the coffee table under the TV, and I had said hi first.

“I’m writing a blog about the situation of refugees and volunteers,” I said.

“Oh, I thought you were here to help.”

Later that evening, around 8 p.m., I saw him again and smiled.

“So, do you want to see our camp?” he asked.

He knew and I knew that journalists could only get into the official military camps if they were invited by the Greek government. I didn’t have the time to visit the parliament. But since I’m writing about the difference between official and unofficial camps, I was certainly interested. When the Greek government cleared the massive unofficial camp at Idomeni in late May, they moved as many people as they could to official military-run camps, usually far outside cities and away from borders. But it’s hard for journalists to get in, and not a lot has been written about conditions at these places.

“Yes,” I said.

“Okay. I help you get in, you help me tell the world how bad our life is here.”

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The Park Hotel: Doing Business on the Outskirts of a Refugee Camp

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Polykastro, a Greek town near the Macedonian border, has about 8,000 residents and was the link to civilization for over 10,000 refugees holed up in massive unofficial camps in the area (Idomeni is 15 minutes away) before they were cleared in the last months. And it was also a link for as many as 1,000 volunteers who had come in from all over the world to help mitigate a crisis that all the countries of the United Nations had been somehow unable to prevent. Now that the unofficial camps have been closed, the number of refugees in the area has dwindled and so has the number of volunteers. But Polykastro is a different place now. This is Part One of the story.

When I arrived in the town it was already dark. I had taken the last bus from Thessaloniki with Eva, an independent volunteer from Germany whom I’d met in Athens. She knew Polykastro well, she’d been here when Idomeni was still around.

When the bus rolled up to the town line, she asked the driver if he could stop at the Park Hotel and he nodded knowingly. “We can stay here for free,” she explained. “Rooms are 20 euros, but volunteers can camp out back for free. At least that’s how it was last week.”

My first impression of it was that it was an American motel, stranded between dusty parking lots a mile from some empty casino. We slid open a gate on the side and walked through moon-pale gravel toward some dark trees. “Do you have a tent?” she asked. I didn’t. “That’s fine,” she assured me. “Some of these tents are empty. The volunteers leave them up for other people when they’re gone.”

She looked around. “We just have to figure out which ones are empty.”

A fun midnight activity.

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Overnight at the Port Piraeus Refugee Camp

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The tent city at the harbour of Piraeus, Greece, is an unofficial refugee camp, constantly under threat of evacuation, where over 2,000 refugees from Syria and Afghanistan have been residing, many of them without papers, for several months. A team of dedicated — and overtaxed — volunteers from a few small NGOs, as well as some “free agents,” manage the residents’ health, safety, hygiene, and even recreation. Because they are an unofficial camp, they get little more than emergency supplies from the UN refugee agency. Most of what’s done at the camp is an improvisation and a cooperation between the volunteers and the residents. There’s almost always a feeling of conflict in the air, but also of humor. (Some names of people have been changed.)

It’s the morning after the night I spent at the port. Samrend is standing over me smoking with his foot resting on the concrete barrier I’m sitting on. His tan is deep, his hair sandy brown, his golden Aviator shades reflecting my own skinny figure back at me. He looks like a Kurdish Abercrombie model who’s been to war. In fact, he has been to war. He fought ISIS with the Iraqi military last year.

Everyone else is hiding in the shade except us two.

“We have a lot volunteers. A lot good. One crazy.” He starts laughing at his joke and decides to repeat it. “One crazy. You know who.”

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Squatted Refugee Hotel: “We Don’t Want Help from the State”

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The tour began like any orthodox tour of a prized facility. “Here we have the common room where we eat together,” said Padelis proudly, with a Greek accent. “Here is the caf√©.”

Then someone interrupted in rapid Greek and and Padelis excused himself. “I’m sorry. I have to go. I am also the doctor here.”

This is the Hotel City Plaza, a hotel in the heart of Athens that was abandonned by it’s owner during the crisis and taken over by radical pro-refugee activists who wanted to provide a functioning alternative to the official military-run camps in the arid outskirts of the lively city.

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Waiting for the Sun to Set

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It’s nearly dinnertime at the refugee camp at Port Piraeus and everyone seems to be pretty hungry. It’s Ramadan and most people here are observing the Muslim fast, which means no eating til sumset. One of the volunteers here told me that when the holy month started, the Greek Navy (which supplies the bulk of the food) only brought in half the rations. No lunch, was their reasoning. The volunteers had to explain that Ramadan is about fasting, not starving.

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The Camp that Cannot Last

In which I meet a young Greek who lost his job, miss my bus stop, ask five people ‘where the refugees stay’, wander around the harbour with no water, pass by a sinking passenger ship, find an unofficial camp staffed by friendly but cantankerous volunteers from all over the world, meet a young Kurdish man who fought ISIS in Iraq, and make 600 bean wraps on the roof of a restaurant.

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It didn’t take me a long time to find what I was looking for. I had talked to a few people, and someone suggested that if I wanted meet refugees and the people who are helping them, then I should head to Port Piraeus, which for many asylum-seekers is the first point of entry onto the European mainland. And it’s where many stay. At least for a while. Over the last year, unofficial shelters have been established here in empty shipping warehouses. And as the Greek government begins to clear these all-volunteer, squat-like tent cities — think Idomeni — the newcomers from Syria and Afghanistan are slowly relenting to move into the sterile military refugee camps.

The only info I had was the name of the port, so I looked around for a bus stop near my hostel and it happened to go in that direction. A guy waiting at the stop asked me if I could spare a ticket and I could. His name was Mike, about thirty, dark hair, over-sunned skin. Was he going to Piraeus? No, he was going to his job at a factory. He had been an engineer, lost his job around 2012, got another but quit after six months when he realized his paycheck would never come. Now he works in a factory. On an industrial stretch of road, he got off the bus and told me I could use his name, but I couldn’t mention what he made at the factory. It’s a pity because it was poetic.

I missed my stop by a lot. None of the signs outside of the city of Athens are written in the Latin alphabet. But by asking over and over where the refugee camp was, I finally found my way to the harbour.

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Preparation

Last month, a bit spontaneously, I bought an EasyJet ticket from Berlin to Athens for around 30 euros. In 2014, a student from Damascus named Ghaith paid 6,800 euros to cross ten borders and arrive in Sweden.

It should be obvious to anyone aware of the so-called refugee crisis in Europe that borders are sieves that control the flow of people based on two things: ethnicity and income. If you have enough money, you can pay your indemnities and move where you please. If you share a blood heritage with the majority population of a wealthy country, you get filed into the shorter line at airports, you get the simplified paperwork, you are greeted by the hotelier and ignored by the police.

One of the sharpest ironies is that when you have a lot of money, unlike Ghaith, you don’t pay as much to travel. You don’t have to buy a fake passport or open your wallet to a blackmarket taxi driver or wire money to a smuggler to take you across the Mediterranean.

Of course there are exceptions to the sieve. But the exceptions are like paint flecks that fall outside of the line — you can still see the shape of the thing.

This blog, dispatching from Athens and points northward, is (first of all) my attempt to see the places and people marked by the passage in a single year of over a million souls out of North Africa and the Near East and into Europe. From June 14 through the end of the month, I will be traveling from Athens up the “Balkan Route” and writing about it.

But Left of North will also approach migration as a challenge to the current structure of the world, and it will look at migration facilitation¬† — whether you want to call it human smuggling or humanitarian aid — as a kind of politics. And it’s a politics that has begun to define the left and the right in Europe.

Helping undocumented migrants is illegal, and yet people do it. They give up spare rooms for stopovers, purchase bus tickets, line up jobs, and drive people northward. Some do it for money, some out of pity, some out of ideology. It’s this last group that this blog is most interested in. Is there a cohesive movement of leftist migration facilitators? Is it a fundamental part of a progressive vision of Europe?

Those sound like good questions to start with.