"Open the borders! Save our children!" went the desperate cries of hundreds of Syrian and Iraqi refugees stranded at the Greek-Macedonian border during a protest on March 3. Women and children held signs pleading, "It's cold, please help us" and "We are human." Next to them a group of young boys sat on train tracks with their heads in their hands as Greek riot police gazed on.
A desperate situation was unfolding at the camp near the northern Greek village of Idomeni, suddenly feeling the strain of more than 10,000 people — ten times its capacity. Everywhere you looked, the fields and roads were dotted with people heading for the overcrowded camp. Families carried what was left of their lives: a few belongings, wet sleeping bags, and crying children.
At the camp, hundreds patiently waited in lines to get water or daily rations of bread and cheese. Food is scarce and hours of queuing is often for nothing if supplies run out. The sick and injured wait outside tents operated by medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), where signs in English and Arabic state, "MSF cannot give you a paperwork to cross the border. We can offer you medical assistance for free!"
Photo by Alexia Tsagkari
Marie-Elisabeth Ingres, MSF's head of mission at the camp, said the charity are trying to provide more than 30,000 meals a day on top of handling an overwhelming need for medical treatment. "This situation is not acceptable in terms of dignity for these people [and] in terms of protection," she told VICE News. "The policy implemented by the European countries here will have an impact and will perhaps create a humanitarian crisis, which is completely crazy and incredible in Europe today."
In the distance, red and yellow Macedonian flags rippled in the wind, now out of reach for those migrants and refugees who only a few weeks earlier would have passed through freely on their way to western Europe. On February 19, Austria decided to cap the number of asylum claims granted at 80 per day. Other countries soon followed suit, resulting in bottlenecks at borders along the so-called western Balkan route.
Overwhelmed NGOs warn that, with around 2,000 people arriving daily, the closure of the Macedonian border could leave up to 100,000 people trapped in Greece without assistance in a matter of weeks. Other camps similar to Idomeni are already appearing across the country, while Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has warned: "What we refuse to do is accept the transformation of our country into a permanent warehouse of souls."
Many European Union (EU) member states have leveled blame at Greece — for not managing its borders and abiding by the bloc's Dublin Regulation, a law requiring asylum claims to be registered in the first country that migrants enter. But Greece is a country in deep financial crisis, roiled by seven years of recession, and in 2015 it saw more than 900,000 people enter its borders irregularly. Registering them is a responsibility Tsipras thinks should be shared by Europe.
Watch the VICE News documentary: Greece's Impending Humanitarian Catastrophe: Breaking Borders (Dispatch 11):
In response to the crisis, the EU has only managed to agree on a plan to relocate 160,000 people from Italy and Greece, out of which only 700 have actually been transferred. In January, the EU gave Greece three months to start registering people or be kicked out of the Schengen Area — a "borderless" zone made up of 26 countries — allowing Greeks to travel freely within Europe.
Rather than solving the situation with cooperation, EU member states have clashed over their individual responsibilities and no coherent message has been heard on them accepting refugees. Last week's EU summit was a desperate last ditch effort to tackle the crisis, which largely revolved around trying to convince Turkey to stop refugee boats from leaving its shores.
In the lead-up to the March 7 summit, EU Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said, "Right now the unity of the Union and human lives are at stake." Yet Europe's failure to agree on a common migration policy — and a streamlined border management and quota system in which all 28 member states share refugees between them equally — has led to the current situation in Greece and across the continent. The EU emerged in the wake of the collapse of the Iron Curtain, but Europe will soon have more border barriers than it did during the Cold War.
Photo by Aexia Tsagkari
With last week's summit not yielding a final decision, negotiations will continue when the leaders from the EU next assemble tomorrow and Friday. The draft outlines of a potential deal include a "one in, one out" policy, effectively meaning that for every "irregular migrant" removed from the EU, a single refugee will be accepted from Turkey where millions are now living in squalid camps.
While details of this policy remain scarce, the ineffectiveness of the relocation system already established raises the question of how long Turkey will be able to keep up the deal — though promises of billions of euros in aid and relaxed visa requirements for its citizens will likely maintain its interest for some time. But as long as access to legal entry into Europe remains so limited, it all seems like a costly and temporary postponement of the problem until smugglers find a new route for bringing migrants and refugees into the continent.
European Council President Donald Tusk has said the EU has "agreed to help Greece and to deploy massive humanitarian assistance there" — doing little to dispel Tsipras' fears of Greece becoming a massive holding pen. Meanwhile, those people trapped at borders, who seek movement not aid, continue attempting to break through the border. On March 14, around a thousand crossed a river into Macedonia where at least four have already drowned, and others may try to storm the fences — as was seen at Idomeni on February 29.
Since the 1985 Schengen Agreement, Europe has been decreasing internal border control in favor of enforcing its external borders — a project regularly referred to as "Fortress Europe." This has sucked up billions in tax money without proving very efficient, and resulted in almost 30,000 people losing their lives in the Mediterranean Sea.
As signatories of the United Nation's (UN) 1951 Refugee Convention, European countries cannot legally refuse people entry without offering shelter, legal aid, and repatriation should they not qualify for asylum. It is these costly requirements that has seen Europe seek third party solutions to the influx of people. While the deal with Turkey may be the latest example, similar collaborations have been seen in the past with Morocco and Muammar Qaddafi's Libya, resulting in consistently inhumane treatment of vulnerable people seeking safe haven in Europe. Refugee families beaten back with sticks by Turkish coast guards already feel the brunt of Europe's proposed arrangement to police its Aegean Sea border.
While adherence to the Refugee Convention is included in the Schengen Agreement, it is only guaranteed once someone sets foot on EU soil, which why these non-EU country collaborations to deter people from even reaching Europe's borders came about. But while they may offer a legal loophole from the obligation of providing protection, can they be justified ethically? Surely those fleeing the Islamic State or Bashar al Assad are in as much need of protection whether they have just crossed a European border or they are just about to cross it? The uncomfortable truth is that these policies were not designed to protect human lives but to protect Europe's frontiers.
Photo by Alexia Tsagkari
Without any legal avenues of reaching Europe, refugees have been pushed into the arms of smugglers and forced on torrid journeys that put them in danger of kidnap, sexual abuse, and death. Meanwhile, the EU is engaging in a costly war against people trafficking, which it blames for the increase in migration, overlooking the fact that climate change, poverty, and conflict are the root causes of the crisis. There are now 2.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, and 3 million split roughly evenly between Jordan and Lebanon. Even in the event of peace in Syria, it would take decades to rebuild the country with sufficient infrastructure to provide safety, education, and healthcare to all of those who have fled — which is why they strive to reach Europe and rebuild their lives rather than remain in the deteriorating conditions seen at overstretched camps.
Watch the VICE News documentary: Migrant Prisons of Libya: Europe or Die:
In the summer of 2015, when the EU launched its military mission to combat people trafficking in Libya, known as EU NAVFOR Med, I met a former people smuggler living under police protection in southern Sicily. He said the only way Europe could combat people smuggling would be to offer legal ways for people to get to Europe. "The people fleeing war, poverty and famine, their hope [to reach Europe] is what keeps traffickers in business." He added: "There is no way to stop them, because when one dies, another is born. When one is attacked, 10 take his place."
François Crépeau, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, has monitored the situation for many years. When I met him at his Montréal office he said the idea of closing borders was a fantasy, something that has never worked throughout history. It is impossible to fully control the rivers, mountains, and seas that make up Europe's borders. He said the point of border control is to have knowledge of who is entering your territory, but forcing people into the hands of smugglers has the opposite effect.
Photo by Alexia Tsagkari
To Crépeau, it is clear that a new way of dealing with migration and asylum is necessary. He used the prohibition of alcohol by United States during the 1920s to illustrate his point. "For 10 years the US had an enormous black market for moonshine, with smugglers and criminality. How did they solve it? By legalizing, regulating, and taxing." He said the same goes for dealing with mass migration.
The EU needs to face up to the fact there is no border force big enough or razor-wire fence high enough to stem the growing number of people ready to die for the chance of a better life. And European leaders have to accept that what is known as the "migrant crisis" is the manifestation of their own crisis of conscience, as they fail to live up to the human rights principles their union is founded upon — whether they choose to admit it or not.
Follow Milene Larsson on Twitter @Milenelarsson