Groups of refugees tried to break through a barrier on the Greece-Macedonia border on April 4, 5 and 6, ending in violent clashes with police.
Police fired tear gas at the refugees, who were trying to flee Greece to take refuge in other countries. Hundreds of refugees joined the campaign to move out of Greek camps, dubbed the “Caravan of Hope,” and the numbers of people trying to leave the camps grew amid rumors that border controls had been loosened.
After three days of clashes and chaos, police returned the refugees to the camps they had been staying in. Those refugees who had not been in camps before were placed in the Diavata refugee camp in northeastern Greece, the closest point to Macedonia, and will later be transferred to Athens.
The “Caravan of Hope” campaign started in February, when Iraqi and Syrian refugees in Turkey announced plans to gather at the northwestern Turkish city of Edirne and travel to Greece by land. Then the rumors on social networks began, including claims that the campaign had the support of human rights organizations and the media and that some of them were even planning to accompany the refugees until they reached their destination. Another rumor claimed that border personnel would not be taking action against any refugee trying to cross.
But ahead of the planned exodus on April 5, human rights organizations warned refugees not to carry it out. “Please be aware that these informal movements, whether by land or by sea, are risky and dangerous,” warned the UN Refugee Agency office in Greece. "Attempts to cross borders irregularly are often unsuccessful, and can bear serious consequences including arrest, detention, family separation and even death.” But groups of refugees ignored the warnings, and continued coordinating via Telegram channels and social media.
Thursday, April 4
On the afternoon of April 4, refugees who had traveled from various Greek cities and camps gathered in front of Diavata camp on the outskirts of the city of Thessaloniki. Each carried a backpack and a small tent or a sleeping bag. They tried to find a way through the fence so they could at least use the bathrooms inside the camp. Police stopped them, resulting in a clash, although at this point the violence was not yet serious. Eventually, with the help of refugees already inside the camp, they succeeded in making an opening in the fence.
Then the number of policemen lining up in front of the camp entrances was stepped up and some of the refugees saw that the police planned to prevent other groups from joining them. There were also rumors that a group of around 1,000 refugees had gathered in the city of Thessaloniki itself to join them but the police were stopping them from gathering.
The atmosphere became extremely tense and chaotic. Smoke rose from the ground, children were crying, and many refugees shouted and screamed, some of them with burning eyes and faces due to the teargas. In some cases, police attacked refugees with batons, and several refugees were injured. Two policemen were injured during clashes after people threw stones at them. The refugees became increasingly enraged by the police’s use of stun and teargas grenades, especially when some of them landed at the feet of children.
When night arrived, police blocked roads to the camp. The situation became quieter as groups set up their tents and lit small fires, sharing news and updates — though, as with the run-up to the clashes, some of the stories circulating did not come from reliable sources. Communication was difficult, as the internet connection to Diavata camp had been cut off.
It was just getting dark when the refugees began walking toward the police line in front of the camp’s entrance. Every step they took was matched by the police, until the refugees were standing face to face with police officers. The refugees had perhaps underestimated the police and did not anticipate that the more they went toward the border, the more the police would use violence, making it clear that the borders would remain closed and that they would have to remain in Greece. However, some of the refugees still believed that the next night, April 5, they would be able to cross the police barrier, though many doubted it.
The Rules for Refugees
In the summer of 2018, the European Union reached an agreement with Greece, Turkey and Italy that meant an increase to the budget for handling refugees in return for these countries’ cooperation to help slow the tide of refugees moving toward northern and western Europe. They also agreed to reinstate the 2013 Dublin Regulation, which refuses refugees the right to choose the country in which they seek asylum. Instead, it states that the person must apply for asylum in the first country he or she arrives in, and in which authorities officially register them. According to the Open Migration project, which supports migrants’ human rights through providing data and information regarding issues pertinent to them, “the asylum request by a third country national is to be presented in the first European country the person arrives in — usually either Italy or Greece — and where he or she was identified by local authorities. This evidently means that individual preferences — that is, where people arriving into Europe actually want to go to and where do they wish to live — are bound to not be properly taken into account.”
Prior to the decision to reinstate the Dublin Regulation, the Greek government had suspended it for at least two years. With its reinstatement, refugees entering Europe initially via Greece will be returned there if they travel elsewhere in Europe. Currently, the majority of European countries will return people to Greece if that is where they first entered Europe. The exception to this is the United Kingdom, which has stated that the refugee situation in that country is “in gross violation of human rights.”
The conditions for refugees in Greece is indeed so unfavorable that refugees want to leave the country however they can. “We have nothing to lose,” said one refugee, echoing the sentiment of many others. “It makes no difference whether we are in a camp, on the streets or in this compound. We have nothing else. Either we die or we open the border.”
Friday, April 5
On the morning of April 5, people took down their tents and prepared to move. By this time, police had completely surrounded the area in front of the camp.
The refugees, more a thousand of them, put their backpacks on their shoulders and set out to confront the police. At noon the caravan decided to first send the women forward and then the children. They did the same thing the next day when the fence that had separated the camp from the area outside it was broken and police entered the camp. This led many in the Greek media to accuse the refugees of using the children as “human shields.”
Refugees at Diavata camp had planned to join the caravan but soon changed their minds when they were met with violence from police, including attacks with stun and teargas grenades. Although a large number of refugees stayed outside the camp, as the police violence increased the number of refugees in the “caravan of hope” dwindled.
When the action taken by the refugees on April 5 proved to be ineffective, they decided to again confront the police. Hundreds of them banded together to break through the police line but not only they did not succeed, but the situation also got much worse, and refugees faced assaults from police armed with batons, stun grenades and teargas. The refugees then changed direction and headed toward the camp’s lower entrance. They were confronted by police every step of the way.
Again it was chaotic. The green expanse of the camp area was surrounded by smoke, teargas, sorrow and rage. Refugees ran from one side to of the camp to the other, families pushing baby carriages and not knowing where to go. They felt they couldn’t enter the camp, but also that they couldn’t leave the area. Everywhere, children were crying. Nevertheless, as 5pm approached, many still hoped they would be able to cross the border — and they had also heard news that a million additional refugees were planning to join them.
But as night approached the situation deteriorated further. Every time the refugees tried and failed to break through the police line, the police reinforced the cordon around them, making it smaller by closing more streets. Videos were circulated that showed refugees from other Greek cities planning to come to Thessaloniki. Authorities suspended trains traveling between Athens and Thessaloniki. Many of refugees had spent the night at train stations, hoping that, come morning, they would manage to get to Thessaloniki. Refugees in other camps in Greece constantly contacted people in the caravan, asking them if the borders had been opened because they wanted to come to Thessaloniki as well. They had no idea what was happening near the border with Macedonia.
The large green expanse was now filled with ash and the lingering smell of teargas. There was no food and no water. On April 5, the water supply to Conex shipping containers used as shelters was shut off, and internet connections remained down. As darkness approached, several groups of refugees, shocked at the levels of violence, which they had not anticipated, appealed to the police. After presenting identification and registering their names with the police, they were promised that they would be returned to their camps without any legal punishments.
Many Iranian refugees living in the camp who had planned to join the caravan changed their minds and returned to the Conex shelters. They were baffled as to why the Greek police had used teargas when there were children were in the crowd. One refugee told IranWire that he had heard that the border had been opened and so he moved toward the police barricade with his spouse and their three-year-old child — but then the teargas had stopped them.
Shocked and exhausted refugees gathered in groups to talk. Again citing rumors they had heard, some were still hopeful. They decided to move again the next day. Some young refugees who appeared to be more furious and angry than others were determined to go ahead regardless of the consequences and they encouraged other young refugees to join them — to get the attention of the media if nothing else. In the meantime the police cordon was getting tighter and tighter.
The night of April 5 passed in peace, though it was cold and many of the refugees did not have any food or water. Some of the refugees living in Diavata camp brought them blankets and food and even took a few of them to stay with them in their Conex shelters.
Saturday, April 6
There was a growing police presence. Some refugees argued that violence would get them nowhere, while others felt it was important to attract the attention of the media. But the police seemed to be better prepared than they had been the day before. They were not throwing teargas grenades into the crowd anymore, but instead shooting them into the air. Teargas and smoke were everywhere and breathing became difficult. Again one could hear children crying and screams. After a number of arrests on April 5, further refugees were arrested on April 6.
Surprised to have been attacked from every angle, many of the refugees now accepted that the borders would not be opened. Greek officials arrived and said as much, and Greek government ministers called on the refugees to leave the border towns. No volunteers were allowed to enter the camp or its surrounding area and dozens of volunteers were even detained for a few hours.
April 6 was worse than the previous two days. Tear gas made the refugees confused and despondent, and it became so bad, many had to leave the area, trying to make their way toward the camp. Then the fence broke and the refugees entered the Diavata camp at the same time as the police did. In one case, police arrested a man who was said to be representing a group of Kurdish refugees and the residents of the camp, which then clashed with the police in an effort to push them out. Now teargas and stun grenades exploded within the perimeters of the camp, while outside the camp another group of refugees clashed with the police.
By this time there were more representatives of the Greek media on the scene, talking to the refugees about their demands. “Let us leave Greece,” was basically the only answer that they gave. “We don’t want to live here.”
After a few hours of further clashes and disturbances, the situation both inside and outside the camp settled down. Apparently the refugees had come to accept that continuing their actions might lead to more violence. Little by little, they sat down in groups of a few. Some of the refugees who had traveled there were still in the camp when the camp residents returned to their shelters. It was not yet dark when the police brought several buses outside the camp entrances, tightened the cordon again and, after registering the refugees, loaded them onto the buses. About 200 refugees remained outside the camp — people who did not even have a camp to go back to. It was decided that they too would be bussed to Athens later.
Greece and the Refugee Crisis
Greek authorities have again pointed out that it has been given no other option than to deal with hundreds of thousands of refugees with little support. Northern and western European countries have made it clear that they are not prepared to have large amounts of refugees within their borders again, arguing that they are still dealing with the problems created after they opened their borders to refugees in 2015. And yet the situation in Greece is dire. The Greek economy is practically bankrupt and the number of homeless people in Greek cities is alarming. As a result, the situation for refugees in the country gets worse every day. Human rights organizations say that what has been going on in Greece is a violation of refugees’ human rights, warning that it could lead to a humanitarian tragedy.
In the meantime, Turkish police arrested hundreds of refugees hoping to go to the city of Edirne on the border with Greece. The police also tried to stop refugees from going to the border by refusing to give them permits to travel from city to city.
For many, the night of April 6 put an end to the Caravan of Hope, although many expressed optimism that, at least, they had been noticed by mainstream and alternative media. After such a long period of exhaustion over and frustration with being ignored, it gave them a sense of progress, however slight.
“We have nothing to lose,” one Iranian refugee said on April 6, as the Caravan of Hope came to a close. “At least we succeeded to say through the media that we live on the same earth — which has become our nationality. If you ask us ‘where are you from?’ we will answer: ‘Earth!’”
Read more from Aida Ghajar's series on human trafficking, refugees and asylum seekers, including:
The “Hellhole of Athens”, April 3, 2019
Frustrated Iranian Refugees in Turkey Launch Twitterstorm, February 15, 2019
Asylum Seekers in Greece: A Life of Fear and Suffering, January 29, 2019
Iranian Refugee Rights Activist Faces Long Prison Sentence in Greece, January 28, 2019
From Asylum Seeking to Asylum Dealing, January 23, 2019
Meeting with a Human Trafficker in Istanbul, December 18, 2018
Iranian Ambassador Shrugs Off Responsibility for Refugees, December 11, 2018
From France to Turkey: Human Trafficking and Asylum Seekers, November 13, 2018