Syrian refugees on Greece-Macedonia border. Photo: Amnesty International.
“Are we animals? Why? Why?”
Those were the words of one Syrian refugee to BBC's Channel 4 recently after Macedonian police attacked desperate families seeking entry into the country along the border with Greece.
The refugee crisis has grown to immense proportions. Tens of thousands of people have flooded into the Balkans in recent weeks.
In mid-August, Syrian refugees fleeing the misery and death of the civil war in their home country - along with other refugees and economic migrants from Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan and portions of Africa - began congregating near the Macedonian border in the hope of gaining entry.
As the crowds became denser and the conditions bleaker for those camped along the border, tensions reached boiling point.
Denied entry and facing armed police, some desperate parents began holding their infants and small children up in the air in an appeal to police to let them cross.
One person, Fawaz, told The Independent that the threat of attack from the Macedonian police paled in comparison to the horrors the refugees were fleeing in Syria: “We are used to this. In Syria, there are real bombs - this is for boys.
“But you are afraid in Syria when you see the bombs coming and houses with four floors collapsing in front of your eyes. One policeman asked me, 'If we don't allow you to enter, what will you do?' I told him I will never go. I have nothing to lose. If you want to kill me, kill me here.
“We are Palestinians from Syria - everywhere I go, I am a refugee.”
On August 22, Macedonia was forced to open its border and allow some small groups through when the situation became so volatile and the crowd so desperate that a riot seemed likely.
The Independent said that following a clash with police: “At least 25 injured people were brought to Gevgelija station by fellow refugees, new bruising apparent over old shrapnel wounds on some. Many children lost contact with their parents in the chaos, and there were desperate calls for 'Mama' and 'Baba'.
“But constant pressure from the thousands of migrants on the razor-wired frontier eventually led to the police pulling back, a tacit admission of their inability to control the huge numbers coming to their border, despite being under orders to block their passage north towards the European Union.”
Thousands of refugees and migrants are now arriving in Macedonia on a daily basis in what experts say is the biggest flood of refugees in Europe since World War II. In the last two months alone, about 45,000 people crossed through the small Balkan nation.
Meanwhile, more than 160,000 people travelled to Greece this year, often in small inflatable rafts launched from the Turkish coast. Such dangerous sea crossings have become more common as Greek authorities have cracked down, often violently, on those trying to cross over into the county via the shared border with Turkey.
No end in sight
There is no end in sight to the tide of refugees, many of whom are facing terrible risks in their attempts to flee to safety. On August 22 alone, the Italian Navy rescued about 1700 people aboard five boats in the Mediterranean, after receiving requests for help from nearly two dozen vessels.
Most of the refugees do not want to stay in Macedonia - they hope to cross into Serbia on their way to Hungary, and then, eventually, secure what they hope will be asylum in Germany or other EU member states.
In response, Hungary is rushing to build a barbed-wire fence on its border with Serbia to block the tide of refugees - and is planning other, more drastic actions. On August 25, Hungarian police said 2533 refugees and migrants entered the country from Serbia, the highest one-day figure this year.
In response, government officials were planning to send the army, mounted police and dogs to the southern border to confront the migrants, Reuters reported. Bulgaria has also announced it will stage military drills near the Macedonian border as a “preventative” measure.
The UNHCR, the agency that oversees refugee issues, has called on the Macedonian government and other European nations, to do much more to stem the looming humanitarian catastrophe.
Refugees told reporters they had been waiting at the Macedonian border for days with no assistance, forced to camp out in the cold and in heavy rain.
Under international law, war refugees are entitled to special sanctuary. But countries such as Macedonia have resisted extending such protections, claiming that this would only encourage others to seek entry.
Meanwhile, the response from wealthier EU countries has been paltry, which in turn has allowed the far right to capitalise on racist fears.
On August 26, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a show of touring a refugee centre in the city of Heidenau after several days of violent attacks and protests by far-right thugs against immigrants and asylum seekers, followed by clashes with police. There were other far-right attacks, including the burning of a planned refugee centre in Berlin.
“There is no tolerance for those people who question the dignity of others, there is no tolerance for those who are not willing to help where legal and human help is required,” she told reporters.
But Merkel and other EU leaders have repeatedly failed to “help where legal and human help is required”. Up until her visit to Heidenau, in fact, Merkel had largely stayed silent about the refugee crisis and the right's vicious response. She refused to unequivocally defend the rights of asylum seekers until a public outcry forced her to comment.
Merkel's silence was so obvious, in fact, that it led to the social media hashtag campaigns “#Merkelschweigt”, which translates to “Merkel stays silent”, and “#Merkelsagwas”, which translates to “Merkel, say something”.
This year, Germany is set to take in more than 800,000 asylum seekers - greater than the total number of refugees for the entire EU last year and four times what Germany accepted last year.
In response, Merkel recently joined French President Francois Hollande in calling for the number of migrants to be distributed more equally. She called for the EU to adopt measures to create more legal hurdles for migrants and chances for countries of entry to eventually force migrants out, rather than provide a path to full citizenship.
The Financial Times said these measures include the “common definition of safe countries of origin to which would-be refugees could be returned”. The aim is to allow, in particular, those considered to be “economic migrants”, rather than war refugees, to be more easily deported.
The aim is also to allow “the establishment before the year end of EU refugee registration centres in Greece and Italy, the two countries where most of the recent wave of migrants has arrived in the EU”.
According to Amnesty International, however, such centres are, for many, little more than open-air prisons. Refugees languish with the bare minimum of support from governments loathe to spend money at a time when austerity budgets are being imposed across Europe.
The conditions are consciously meant to be a disincentive to those who might consider fleeing for Europe. The centres provide governments with a way to warehouse refugees and migrants, rather than allowing them to join and settle permanently into society.
Amnesty said conditions in such detention centres in Greece, “fall significantly below international and national standards and may amount to inhuman or degrading treatment. There is chronic overcrowding and lack of hygiene including overflowing toilets, soiled mattresses, shortages of bedding and clothes, power cuts and a lack of hot water.
“New arrivals are frequently not given a change of clothes and are forced to sleep in the wet garments they arrived in. Overcrowding has meant that many refugees have to sleep in open areas such as ports.
“On Lesvos, asylum seekers are forced to sleep in a camp in a car park which is three times over-capacity. Samos immigration detention centre, which has a reported capacity of 280 people, was holding up to 600 refugees in June, and Chios detention center's capacity of 208 people was exceeded by more than 300 people.”
As Amnesty and other humanitarian groups report, greater border security, including fence construction; the practice of “pushbacks” (the unlawful collective expulsion of migrants across borders); squalid detention centres; the lack of a path to citizenship; and the threat of deportation don't stem the tide of refugees and migrants, but only force those who are fleeing into more desperate and dangerous crossings, putting them at greater risk.
Europe's governments must be pressured to open their borders to the tide of refugees and migrants - and they must stop scapegoating refugees for economic and social problems. The European left, in particular, must be united in fierce opposition to the right's attempts to exploit fears of migrants and to whip up racist and xenophobic hysteria.
Everywhere, our cry must be: “No human being is illegal. Immigrants are welcome here.”
[Abridged from Socialist Worker (US).]