Police fire tear gas after refugees stranded for days in cold and squalid conditions threw stones, injuring officers.
Athens, Greece – Clothes are draped from the windows of the once abandoned Elliniko Olympic Games venue that now serves as a temporary residence for refugees and migrants on the outskirts of the Greek capital.
A steady staccato of cheers and arguments rises from the football field, where a group of young men from Iran and Morocco kick a ball all day long as they wait for the next chance to continue their journey through Europe.
Forty-five-year-old Abedine Khany Kalareh sits in the bleachers with his hands crossed on his lap. Wearing shorts and a T-shirt despite the chilly weather, he recalls being soaked as it poured with rain while he waited for seven days at the Greek-Macedonian border hoping to pass.
Kalareh was one of more than 100 Iranians, Moroccans and Algerians who were bussed back to the Elliniko centre over the weekend. Unsure if Macedonia will open its borders to them again, they are now stuck in limbo.
With up to 2,500 people stranded at the Idomeni border since Macedonia announced its closure to certain nationalities last week, several clashed with Macedonian border police on Saturday when officers began erecting a metal fence along the border.
Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia have imposed similar border crossing restrictions.
Constance Theisen, the humanitarian affairs director for Doctors Without Borders (MSF), says that “many people have been forced to sleep outside” because the camp infrastructure in Idomeni can only support between 1,300 and 1,500 people.
“Ever since the closure there have been daily fights between groups of refugees and migrants and some clashes with Macedonian police,” she explains.
Macedonian President Gjorgje Ivanov said the move was designed to prevent “tensions” between Macedonians on the one hand, and refugees and migrants on the other.
Ivanov claimed that any more than 2,000 refugees crossing through the country at any given moment would cause “permanent and direct threats and risks for national security”.
As borders tighten and close across Eastern Europe, only those who can prove citizenship of Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan are allowed to continue on their way to seek asylum in Western Europe.
Tens of thousands of people fleeing from African and Southeast Asian countries have been dubbed “economic migrants” and denied passage.
Coming from Sarpol-e Zahab, the capital of the largely Kurdish Kermanshah province, Kalareh is a member of the Yarsani religious minority. Situated in western Iran and eastern Iraq, the Yarsanis are estimated to number between half-a-million and a-million.
Putting his fate in the hands of smugglers and risking his life crossing borders and waterways, he made the trip to Europe with the hope of attaining asylum in the UK, where he studied during the 1980s.
“I went back to Iran hoping that the situation would be better,” he says. “It has only gotten worse. I had no option except to leave Iran.
“I had a job – I am not coming to Europe for a job,” he continues. “Every family in my region has had a relative executed or put in jail.”
Earlier this month, 36 human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, issued a joint statement urging United Nations General Assembly member states to take action on Iran’s human rights record.
The groups cited Iran’s execution of at least 830 people between January 1 and November 1, as well as “members of ethnic and religious minorities languishing in arbitrary detention”.
“For us, we are feeling religious oppression in Iran. I’d rather kill myself than go back,” says Kalareh. “We accept the risk of drowning or dying on the trip, but the risk in Iran is more.”
‘Do you know if the border will open?’
Sina, a 26-year-old who didn’t provide his last name for fear of his family’s safety, holds his wife’s hand as he recalls converting to Christianity while on a trip to Australia three years ago.
“We don’t know anything about the border,” he says. “Do you know if it’s open? Will it even open again?”
Joined by his wife’s brother, the couple left Tehran two weeks ago. “Iranians are not hungry,” Sina says. “We are not going to Europe for money. We want freedom, and we have political and religious problems from the Iranian government.”
Estimated to number between 300,000 and 370,000, Iranian Christians are recognised as a religious minority by the Iranian government.
After braving the mountainous border region between Iran and Turkey, Sina and the others took a boat to the Greek island of Lesbos, a transit hub for refugees and migrants en route to Europe.
But, when they arrived in Idomeni, Macedonian border guards told them that the border was closed to Iranians. “We slept outside in the cold weather and rain for two days,” says Sina. “The UN didn’t have enough blankets or tents for us, so we slept outside.”
Sina describes how they had to throw their suitcases overboard as their dinghy boat filled with water on the way to Lesbos. That is why they have been wearing the same clothes for the last week, he explains. “I at least want to get clothes for my wife – I am fine, I don’t need any – but the UNHCR representative said we have to wait.”
‘Tell Macedonia that we just want to pass through’
Twenty-nine-year-old Mehdi left Iran three weeks ago. Following half-a-dozen cousins and friends, he was the only person in his group who did not make it across the Macedonian border before it was sealed.
“I was waiting [in Athens] to receive money at the Western Union,” he remembers. By the time he made it to Idomeni, however, it was too late. “Tell Macedonia we don’t want to stay there,” he says. “Tell Macedonia we just want to pass through.”
Due to “some problems from the government” for activism-related reasons, Mehdi says he was forced to work in black market jobs because he was informally barred from employment in Tehran.
Declining to elaborate on his situation, he simply adds: “Iranians are good people. We don’t want to make problems in Europe. We just want a safe place.”