by Vassilis Kyriakoulis
IDOMENI,Greece: – Strapped to the underbelly of a train, 23-year-old Ali Arzin from Afghanistan had hoped to cross the border of crisis-hit Greece into Macedonia and eventually reach another EU country.
But the wooden platform he had rigged in November beneath the train carriage fell apart, and Ali met a gruesome death on the tracks.
Hundreds of migrants have perished trying to reach Greece, but Ali is one of the first known to have died trying to escape the limbo in which tens of thousands find themselves there.
In recent months, hundreds of refugees from impoverished and war-torn countries in Africa, the Middle East and central Asia have been attempting to leave Greece via its northern border with Albania but particularly Macedonia. The same border the Greek government has spent years and millions of euros trying to stop migrants getting into Greece.
Now they are trying to stop them leave.
The refugees huddle in makeshift camps near the train tracks at the border post of Idomeni, 65 kilometres (40 miles) north of Thessaloniki, waiting for their chance.
Some try to sneak on board passing trains from Thessaloniki to Skopje, while others hope to enlist the help of Macedonian smugglers.
“I’ve been here for 20 days,” says a man from Afghanistan who declined to give his name.
“I want to cross into Macedonia and head on to Europe. There are no jobs in Greece, I want to live in Germany,” he said.
Four years of economic crisis, soaring unemployment and mounting xenophobia have made Greece an unwelcome, and frequently hostile environment for undocumented migrants seeking a better future in Europe.
– Migrants keep coming –
Last week 200 Syrian refugees protested in Athens demanding to be allowed to leave the country.
Yet other migrants, fleeing war and poverty, keep coming. Nearly 65,000 have been held or stopped by the police since January — an 82 percent rise compared to same period in 2013 — some 28,000 of them Syrians fleeing the war-ravaged homeland.
Since 2006, nearly 900,000 migrants have been arrested in Greece for illegal entry or residence.
“I lived in Greece for eight years, mostly working as a farm labourer,” says a 22-year-old Afghan.
“I used to be able to live on my salary of 30 euros ($37) a day. But now it is very difficult to live in Greece because of the crisis,” he said.
Next to him, a young woman from Cameroon breaks down in tears.
“I left Cameroon because Islamists killed my husband. I am a Christian,” she says, shivering inside a sleeping bag.
According to the latest report of EU border agency Frontex, Macedonian smugglers charge between 120 and 200 euros for passage as far as the Serbian border.
Similar networks have sprung up on the Greek-Albanian border, owing to greater security on ferry crossings between Greece and Italy.
Traffickers also charge half the price for the land route through the western Balkans, around 1,800 euros compared to 3,000 euros for the direct sea or air route, according to Frontex.
– ‘Human river’ –
“Every day, up to 150 people arrive in our area,” says local resident Dimitris Ioannidis.
“They come from Thessaloniki in taxis, cars and buses. Smugglers have also moved in the area, promising the migrants help in crossing the border. It is a human river that does not stop,” he said.
Most of the migrants sleeping in the fields around Idomeni have been given temporary residence documents by the Greek authorities. If the Greek police find them, they are sent back towards the interior.
They face a more hostile reception if they are caught in Macedonia.
“They treat us not as humans but as animals,” said a 24-year-old Pakistani. “They treat us like a ball to be kicked around.”
Greece is bound by European Union regulations to prevent undocumented migrants from crossing its border into other EU states.
Every day, Greek police patrols scout the area and around 50 migrants are sent back to Thessaloniki on board the train.
“Most of these people here have already been documented by authorities,” said northern Greece police supervisor Manolis Katriadakis.
“Those without papers are arrested,” he said.
According to Frontex, detections of non-EU migrants on the border between Serbia and Hungary rose by 338 percent between 2012 and 2013.