Anwar Ismail Murad passed almost effortlessly along what has become known as the Balkan route, heading north from Greece to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, through Serbia, Croatia and on to Slovenia. He reached there on February 14, when the border was still open, but that’s where his dream abruptly died.
Slovenia denied the 19-year-old Yazidi from Sinjar in Iraq entry, citing a lack of documents even though four countries before had allowed him passage. Murad says authorities took him and others to a hotel near the border where they spent two days, before putting them onto a bus and sending them back to Croatia.
From then on, against all expectations – and against official policy – Murad found himself kicked back across nearly all the borders he had passed through.
“Just think that my friends passed a few hours earlier than me and now they’re in Germany,” he says wistfully, sitting in the sprawling refugee camp of Idomeni, on the Greek-FYROM border, where thousands of refugees and other migrants have been stranded for at least two months since the borders definitively closed in early March.
As Balkan countries stopped accepting migrants crossing through their land borders, those who were on the route say they were the victims of countries desperate to get rid of those trapped by the new rules.
Balkan countries along the route say they do not force potential asylum-seekers back across the border they just came from. But Murad’s case is by no means the only one.
About 54,000 people are currently stranded in Greece, after the European Union and Turkey reached a deal designed to stem the flow of refugees into Europe’s prosperous heartland. Under the deal, new arrivals on Greek islands after March 20 face being returned to Turkey unless they successfully apply for asylum in Greece.
The vast majority of those in Idomeni and elsewhere in Greece never made it any further. But some say they were forced back, mainly through holes in the border fence with FYROM but also from further north – and show documents to back up their stories. Others even say they were sent to Greece despite bypassing it originally, having passed from Turkey through Bulgaria to Serbia.
Mohamad al-Baghdady, 33, from Syria’s contested town of Deir el-Zour, said he crossed the Greek-FYROM border with his wife and daughters, 3-year-old Line and 10-month old Bailsane, on March 3, just before the borders shut. They stayed in a FYROM refugee camp for just over a month, he said, before FYROM authorities destroyed their registration documents and pushed them back into Greece, through the fence FYROM erected along parts of its southern border.
“We didn’t want to go back, but the police put us on a truck and drove us to the border with Greece. They opened a hole in the fence and pushed us through. It was 2:30 in the morning,” al-Baghdady said.
To prove they were there, his wife, Kamar Darwish, 29, pulls out a handful of food coupons from the FYROM camp, notes with the names and telephone numbers of doctors there for their children, and FYROM currency.
“If there was just one square meter that was safe in Syria, just one square meter, we would have stayed there, we wouldn’t have come here and gone through this hardship,” al-Baghdady said.
About another 30 Syrians who had been with the family that night were also in Idomeni, pitching their tents nearby.
Darwish said the family told FYROM authorities they wanted to apply for asylum. “But they told us ‘there is no asylum in FYROM. This is not Europe.” She still doesn’t understand why they were returned to Greece. “Everything was OK, our papers and everything.”
FYROM authorities denied claims that migrants have been forced back into Greece.
“We categorically reject allegations that migrants have been pushed through the fence back to Greece,” FYROM police spokesman Toni Angelovski told the AP. “We also reject claims that migrants have not been allowed to apply for asylum.”
Further south, in the Petra refugee camp at the foot of Mount Olympus, a group of about 30 Yazidis say they had chosen an alternative route, using smugglers to get to Serbia through Bulgaria. They reached the Serbo-Croatian border in February, they say, but were denied entry. Then, inexplicably to them, Serb authorities sent them south to FYROM, from where they were pushed into Greece.
Serbia denies any organized attempts to send people back to FYROM. But officials speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record, said some individual cases could have happened.
Dakhwas Al Hasan, 25, and Sarrad Shakir, 19, both from Mosul in Iraq, undertook the journey along with 14 others. Al Hasan said they crossed the Iraqi-Turkish border on January 23, staying in Turkey for about 25 days before crossing into Bulgaria. They walked for three days before reaching the capital, Sofia, and then heading into Serbia.
Once in Serbia, they received registration documents and were put on a train to the Croatian border. But Al Hasan said Croatian authorities wouldn’t let them through without registration documents from Greece.
They spent five days in a camp near the border, where they were beaten by Afghans and Iranians because they were Yazidi. “Then the Serb police put us onto buses and drove us to the Serbian-Macedonian border,” he said.
After two days stuck in no-man’s land between Serbia and FYROM, FYROM authorities put them into a camp and a few days later “they led us to the fence near Idomeni, and pushed us through a hole into Greece.
Dilshad Omer, an 18-year-old from Dohuk, Iraq, now lives in the Petra camp with his mother, three sisters and four brothers. They also went through Bulgaria, he said, although his group of 23 people spent 11 days in jail there before reaching Serbia.
He displays a photograph on his mobile phone of his Serbian registration document, which he says Serb authorities took off him and ripped up while sending the family back to the FYROM border, putting them on buses at 3 a.m. Eventually they too were taken to the border fence with Greece, Omer said.
Al-Hasan still dreams of reaching Germany, where his sister and her family now live. While others have given up on the legal process and are seeking out smugglers to complete their journey, he still has hope.
“We want to go to Germany legally,” he says. “And so, we wait.”