Uncertainty and legal limbo further complicate refugee trauma at Idomeni camp
Tensions at the Greece-Macedonia border remain high after weekend violence. Macedonian police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at hundreds of refugees and migrants who attempted to force their way across the fenced Greek-Macedonian border. MSF says at least three children were hit by rubber bullets, another 30 were among hundreds of people treated for breathing difficulties and dozens more for psychological care, suffering from shock and trauma.
And the stress continues to spiral as weeks become months for thousands of people marooned in increasingly desperate conditions. FSRN’s Filip Warwick has more.
About 11,000 people remain stranded in the Idomeni refugee camp at the still closed border, and conditions have not improved over the past few weeks. Many refugees here are showing the effects, both physically and psychologically.
The EU-Turkey deal doesn’t apply to the people still stuck here. They made their way to the gate between Greece and Macedonia before the deal took effect. And so, they wait.
As time passes by, camp inhabitants are becoming more exasperated, distressed and disheartened. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) field psychologist Aggela Boletsi has observed the change in mood and its impact on the psychological state of the camp.
“From the mental health point of view, we see that a lot of people who are carrying some post-traumatic experiences, are in a very difficult state, in a very vulnerable conditions at the moment, because all these problems are aggravating here and are coming again into surface,” explains Boletsi, saying they didn’t observe in the early days of the camp. “Because then people knew that they would cross the border, that they were in transit, so they had hope, they were more activated, and many of their problems were hidden, in a way. Now all these things have come up in the surface.”
There is nothing to do here in the camp but to linger. And with each day without forward momentum, the vacuum created by the current circumstances grows stronger. Dr. Boletsi explains that makes mental health treatment increasingly important.
“We see many people who are having panic attacks who have strong and very intense anxiety symptoms people, people with PTSD symptoms, and also children,” Boletsi points out. “And I think children they belong to a group which is one of the most vulnerable at the moment.”
Nisreen is a 26-year-old teacher from Aleppo, Syria. She and her 2 1/2 year-old son have been stranded in Idomeni for six weeks. She says his behavior has changed dramatically and she tries to comfort him as best she can.
“My son was very talkative, he was watching TV and playing football, and he wanted to play with the others. Now he just sits down and looks around, and ask a lot of questions: ‘Mum, where is my grandma? Mum, where is my father? Mum, I want my toys, I want my bedroom.’” Nisreen says. “I’m singing for him all the night, his favorite songs, just to calm down him, without the sounds of the people, who some of them cry, some of them talk all the night. It’s so noisy place, so noisy.”
According to Greek police, about 6,000 of the people existing here in this camp are women and children. MSF psychologist Boletsi says Nisreen’s experience with her son his follows a behavioral pattern for parents faced with testing conditions and insecurity.
“We also see people who are very exhausted, physically by the situation here, by the overcrowdedness, by the sanitary conditions, by the fact that they cannot take care of themselves or that they cannot take care of their children, we see a lot parents who feel very guilty at the moment because they cannot take care of their children,” says Boletsi. “They cannot even take care of themselves and their basic needs and they don’t know what to hope for.”
The absence of hope is exacerbated by the lack of accurate information. Babar Baloch, regional European spokesperson for the UNHCR, says that leaves people here either confused or misinformed.
“They don’t know what is happening, either if the border is closed or open. Who is the one that will be allowed across the border? They don’t know,” explains Baloch. “It doesn’t come through us, because the countries are not telling us, so these issues make them more anxious.”
Rumors make their way through the camp like wildfire, sparking a tinderbox of desperation. Greek government spokesperson for the Special Commission on Refugees Giorgos Kyritsis said Idomeni refugees should not believe in false rumors that the border will open any time soon.
“We are confused because every day we hear news that makes us optimistic, then we hear another news that makes us pessimistic. That’s why we are lost,” remarks Farah, who fled Iraq with her parents, sister, brother-in-law and her two nephews. With seven members of her family living in two tents for the past two months, Farah says she feels disoriented in a sea of people. “We don’t know the real thing, we don’t know what is happening behind the curtains, behind the political curtains. We want to know what they will do for us because we didn’t come for tourism, we escaped because there is a war. ”
Despite the recent deal between the European Union and Turkey, not all of the 28 member nations are on board. Certain EU countries like Poland, Slovakia and Hungary may still adopt a more ad hoc approach, rather than work toward a cohesive solution to the refugee crisis.
“But remember, we are in the European bloc, which is based on some fundamentals, some principles, some solidarity and that has been missing and that has created more problems for us and refugees rather than anything else,” says Baloch says. “But this is tough because you don’t see the political will from the wider EU bloc to contribute and help.”
With European member states closing the so-called Balkan Route and forces from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia reinforcing the bulging barbed wire fence, each refugee here is left standing still, holding their physical and emotional baggage. And with 11,000 unanswered voices deafened by tear gas and rubber bullets, 11,000 reasons to cross the border remain.