By Lefteris Papadimas
Refugees and migrants stranded at Greece’s border with Macedonia vowed to stay put on Tuesday, hours after the European Union and Turkey hailed a tentative accord to stop a scramble by hundreds of thousands of people to reach Europe from war zones.
At least 30,000 people have been trapped in various parts of Greece from a cascade of border shutdowns further north blocking a so-called ‘Balkans corridor’ used by more than a million people since the migratory wave started a year ago.
There was no sign the pressure was easing on Tuesday, as thousands of people queued up at Greece’s northern border for Macedonia to open a border gate.
Greek police say it has not opened in at least 24 hours, but heavy rain and a declaration by EU leaders that the Balkans route was now ‘shut’ did not dampen their resolve.
“We will stay here even if we all die,” said Kadriya Jasem, a 25-year-old from Aleppo in Syria among at least 13,000 people living in squalor in makeshift camp in Idomeni, a village on the Greek side of the border.
She held a four-month-old baby in her arms who she said needed a doctor. “Please open the border, if only for the children,” she said.
At an EU summit on Monday, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told leaders of the bloc Ankara was willing to take back all migrants who enter Europe from Turkey in future in return for financial aid, faster EU entry talks and quicker visa-free travel for its citizens.
People fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and beyond have flooded into the EU since early 2015, most making the perilous sea crossing from Turkey to Greece, then heading north through the Balkans to Germany.
EU leaders aim to work out key details with Turkey by the next scheduled summit on March 17-18. European Council President Donald Tusk said the outcome would show migrants that there was no longer a path into Europe for people seeking a better life.
“The days of irregular migration to Europe are over,” he told a joint news conference with Davutoglu in the early hours of Tuesday.
Idomeni continued to see arrivals on Tuesday morning, albeit at a slower pace, Reuters witnesses said.
There was no let-up in the number of people arriving on outlying islands, with the coastguard reporting 391 new arrivals in the past 24 hours.
NATO began patrols in the Aegean on Monday to support efforts to locate migrant boats, overcoming territorial sensitivities in Greece and Turkey to patrol in the waters of both NATO states.
It was not immediately clear whether Greek authorities planned to remove the migrants from the Macedonian border; a similar operation took place two weeks ago, but then Idomeni hosted about 1,000 migrants and not 13,000-plus.
Macedonia has restricted entry drastically over the past two-and-a half weeks, starting by imposing restrictions and not allowing Afghans across, then slowing down the admission rate and the hours the border is open.
Babies sat on cardboard at the frontier on Tuesday morning. It had rained heavily the night before, soaking through hundreds of tiny tents designed for much milder weather. Many people were coughing.
“I’m afraid that we will die here, we are all sick,” said Amina Khalil, 20, also from Aleppo. “We are living like wild animals but if we leave we will lose our priority number to go to Europe, if Macedonia ever lets us pass.”