The closure of the Balkan route has left 12,000 refugees stranded between Greece and Macedonia. As conditions deteriorate, mental health issues have become prevalent. Marianna Karakoulaki reports from Idomeni.
Those refugees and migrants that arrived in Idomeni more than a month ago have adjusted as best they can to living in a refugee camp. Children play, families cook in makeshift outdoor kitchens, and teenagers stroll along the narrow paths of the village. It seems as if normality has returned for the 12,000 people who remain stuck on the Greek-Macedonian border.
Yet life in the camp is not as simple as it may seem to newcomers. Despite putting on a brave face, people are frustrated, angry, desperate and depressed. They still wonder why they have to wait in the camp. They still hope that the border will open. They still believe every rumor they hear.
A few weeks ago a map circulated showing an alternative route that prompted thousands to go on a 10-mile walk in the hope they would be able to cross the border. Almost everyone was pushed back to Greece, and some were severely beaten by the Macedonian police. More recently a rumor spread throughout the camp that the Red Cross was going to cut through the Macedonian fence and eventually open the border. Ignoring announcements to the contrary by the Greek authorities, hundreds gathered in front of the police blockade holding their luggage and protested until they had no strength left to continue.
“I feel lost. Every day I hear news that makes me feel optimistic. The next day I hear news that makes me pessimistic. I am confused. My family and I are financially and mentally exhausted, but we stay here because we still have some hope. But a day here is like a year for us,” 32-year-old Farah from Iraq told DW.
Rumors and counterrumors
At this point everyone will believe everything they hear.
Mustafa, 20, fled Syria on his own. After living in a tent in Idomeni for weeks, he went to Thessaloniki for a night, to have a shower, sleep and eat properly. Before he agreed to follow the person that was going to host him, he made him swear he was going to bring him back. “The border will open, and I have to go back to cross it. I have to go to my cousin in Germany,” he told DW.
People in Idomeni are enduring an endless ordeal rendering them vulnerable to everything: weather, criminality, loneliness, lies, but most importantly their own selves. The first time that mental health issues were observed among refugees was in August when Macedonia shut its border for the first time for two days. The next time was in November when the border closed for the second time and certain nationalities were excluded from the Balkan route. This time is no different.
According to Aggela Boletsi, a field psychologist for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the closure of the borders has triggered hidden emotions and feelings among the refugees, and repressed problems have resurfaced.
Traumatic experiences resurface
“As people are no longer in transit, their needs are higher and their problems are aggravating. People who are carrying post-traumatic experiences are in a very vulnerable position. We have cases of people with panic attacks, with strong and intense anxiety symptoms, and people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); their war traumas are coming back to surface,” she told DW.
Ibrahim, a 26-year-old Iraqi refugee, has a bright smile on his face, but as he starts talking his voice begins to tremble. Then he suddenly breaks down in tears.
“I feel very stressed about everything. I am 26 and I haven’t lived anything. When I was in Iraq, I was studying and working at the same time. Then I went to Turkey, and I was working for nothing. When I finally left Turkey and crossed the sea, I thought I made it. I thought I would go to Germany and I would bring my wife. Then I came here… I came to nothing. I don’t know what I will do,” he told DW.
Someone to talk to
Every day there are protests in Idomeni, and people’s reactions intensify every single time. Within a month, three people have attempted to set themselves on fire; two of them are in hospital.
“People here feel that nobody listens to them. In Idomeni we see people’s dignity being damaged. There are many that are offering help, but people here feel that although they may speak to someone, their voice may not be heard,” says Boletsi.
Every person in Idomeni has a different story of suffering to tell. Some try to hide their stories for fear of being mocked, others because their stories may have repercussions for those left behind. But all they really want is someone to talk to.
“Day by day everything is getting darker, but sometimes I pretend to smile, to talk with some friends, to forget my suffering. I still have hope,” says Farah.
Yet the refugees of Idomeni are desperate for some peace and quiet in their lives. “People here are survivors because they have made it so far. Children, for example, have the capacity to adapt to the situation and to ask for a sense of normality. We see children improvising so that they play with everything. They need to feel that they are children,” says Boletsi.