Choice of paths, choice of risks on Greek-FYROM border

Choice of paths, choice of risks on Greek-FYROM border

Their paths separate under a frayed banner that reads "Welcome to Greece," some two kilometres from the border with Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).

Ahmed Majid, a Syrian, will take his place among thousands of fellow Syrian and Iraqi refugees stuck at the border crossing of Idomeni where FYROM only allows a few hundred through each day.

Mohamed, an Egyptian not classed as a refugee, is not even entitled to wait there, so he will try his luck sneaking into FYROM through the hills.

Conditions on the ground for these two men in their 30s have already been determined by a distinction made between war refugees and economic migrants at European capitals weeks ago.

In February, Balkan states decided only to allow passage to Syrians and Iraqis holding valid passports. All others are to be turned back.

At Idomeni, Ahmed has a chance of eventually getting through to continue his journey to Europe – if he can put up with days to weeks of waiting in a mud-soaked camp with another 10,000 people struggling to find food and shelter provided by beleaguered aid groups.

Mohamed may get through the border more quickly with the aid of smugglers, but risks getting hurt or even dying.

After sharing a taxi ride for the 90-kilometre (55-mile) ride from Thessaloniki, the two men say goodbye to each other in a hotel parking lot on the highway.

"I know the border is closed but I want to go to Germany, I will try, try, try," says Mohamed.

"Egypt is bad, there is no work."

Hotel Hara at the village of Evzoni, Greece’s other main border crossing into FYROM, is a beehive of activity.

There is a bevy of tents pitched in the parking lots, children playing football and a group of men trying to get some sleep in the surrounding fields.

The hotel’s cafe is abuzz with the sound of phone conversations and crying children.

Amir Bahrani, an Iranian Kurd, is waiting to receive a 1,500 euro ($1,600) money transfer. He intends to give the money to smugglers who have promised to get him across the border and all the way to Germany.

"Half the money up front, the rest upon arrival in Germany," he says.

Moustapha, a 26-year-old Egyptian, finds himself in a quandary. He has been here three weeks, doesn’t have enough money to pay for a smuggler, but is also too afraid to set out alone.

"Two people (I know) were caught in Serbia and sentenced to six months in prison," he says.

And he criticises the short-sighted European premise that Egypt is a so-called "safe country of origin" where economic migrants can be returned.

"There are assassinations every day," he says, adding that one of his brothers was killed by a sniper.

Hameed Rajput, a spindly Pakistani, is waiting to recover his strength to attempt another crossing of the frontier. He has tried 11 times in the past three months.

The latest attempt the night before ended when he heard FYROM police dogs barking at a distance.

One of his companions displays a broken finger which he says was caused by police blows.

Another man named Yacine from Algeria has a swollen ankle after three attempts to cross.

"There are desperate people trying to exploit whatever option there is to move north," Greek junior interior minister for police Nikos Toskas said Friday.

"Essentially these people are not convinced that the border is closed," he told state TV ERT.

But EU President Donald Tusk had a clear message for the likes of Mohamed.

"I want to appeal to all potential illegal economic migrants wherever you are from: Do not come to Europe," Tusk said in Athens on Thursday.

"Do not believe the smugglers. Do not risk your lives and your money. It is all for nothing." [AFP]

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