Greece’s largest informal refugee camp, near the northern Greek village of Idomeni, is being cleared of refugees by Greek authorities. Idomeni is a small village near the border with Macedonia that became the most-used crossing point for thousands of people who crossed into Greece from the Turkish coast over the last year. Greek authorities began evacuating the site early Tuesday morning.
The village was attractive to migrants because it has a rail link leading to Macedonia and Central Europe. When Macedonia shut its border this year, it caused a humanitarian logjam at the site. As recently as March, the camp was home to more than 14,000 people, most of them from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The numbers at the camp have slowly dwindled as people have moved on and found other places to live. The camp currently holds more than 8,000 people.
Idomeni quickly became a symbol of Europe’s closed border policy for migrants and refugees. Thousands camped there for months in the hope of eventually being able to reach the continent’s wealthier countries. Health, food and sanitation problems were exacerbated by bad weather and intermittent violence. Greek authorities regularly sent in cleaning crews and provided portable toilets, but conditions continued to worsen. Last week, Doctors Without Borders pulled its team of doctors and medical workers from the camp temporarily for security reasons.
Hundreds of refugees are now being relocated by bus to newly built organized facilities set up by the army and local authorities. More than 700 police officers were deployed in the operation. Police divided up people according to their nationality and started with refugees living in tents inside the camp. They will steadily progress outwards toward those on the outskirts, near the Idomeni railroad tracks. Aid organizations are already moving their on-the-ground operations to the new facilities.
Once moved, people can apply for asylum and wait for their claims to be processed. Under the terms of a March 18 agreement between the European Union and Turkey, migrants and refugees in Greece before midnight on March 20 will be relocated. Those arriving after midnight on March 20 are subject to a fast-track asylum process that will return them to Turkey if their asylum claim is rejected. The authorities say that the evacuation could last more than a week.
Greek authorities also moved to dismantle the areas of the camp that have been cleared. As refugees and migrants waited to board the buses holding big plastic bags filled with their belongings on their shoulders, bulldozers began erasing the tent city. There were no reports of violence at the camp during the evacuations.