Greek authorities began the evacuation of the informal refugee camp in Idomeni at dawn Tuesday.
At least four hundred police officers were sent into the camp, which houses an estimated 8,400 people. Greek authorities have assured that no force will be used in evacuating refugees.
“So far everything is going smoothly,” Christine Nikolaidou, spokesperson for the International Organization of Migrants (IOM) in Greece told VOA. “But it’s true that there’s a big police force around Idomeni camp to be prepared for something unwanted for the time being.”
What is different about this evacuation from smaller ones attempted in recent months is that Greek authorities have confirmed the locations of 9 camps around Thessaloniki, so that migrants are sure of where they are going and that the new camps are prepared to accommodate them.
“And that’s how they were convinced because of course last time…the camps weren’t ready. Now the situation is much better and they know where they’re going to go,” Nikolaidou said.
The Idomeni “camp”, an informal settlement that sprang up at a pedestrian crossing between Macedonia and Greece, reached a peak of near 12,000 residents when Macedonia closed its borders in March. Since then, Greece has seen a dramatic upswing in the already persistent problem of homeless refugees, prompting authorities to urge the Idomeni migrants to relocate to established camps.
Some of these mostly Syrian, Afghan, and Iraqi refugees have complied with authorities in hopes that the formal camps will offer them better living conditions. But many others remain reluctant to leave as they fear that new camps will be no better or even worse, and that the move will delay their resettlement in Europe.
“Official camps are not perfection, that’s for sure,” Nikolaidou said. “But they’re safer and you can control them in a much better way than Idomeni because [they] have official tents, security staff, staff from NGOs…with their identities you avoid smugglers and all the people approaching refugees and migrants and told them lies about crossing the border. It’s not a perfect situation, but it’s definitely better.”
Few migrants, however, seek asylum in Greece, hoping instead to reach the stronger economies of Germany or Sweden.
The EU has not offered financial support for the new official refugee camps in Greece, but it has repeatedly stated that it is aware of the problem.
“They recognize the problem – that they cannot have the personnel they want in the accommodation camps and of course in the asylum service which are two crucial points of the procedure,” Nikolaidou said of the EU.
An agreement was reached between Turkey and the EU in March aimed at stemming the flow of migrants to Greece, in which refugees arriving on the Greek islands from Turkey would face deportation back to Turkey unless they successfully apply for asylum in Greece.
Analysts say the presence of 3 million migrants on Turkish soil makes the country the world’s largest host of displaced people — part of what the U.N. calls the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.