Greece starts evacuating squalid Idomeni migrant camp

IDOMENI, Greece – Hundreds of Greek police on Tuesday, May 24, began clearing the overcrowded Idomeni camp, a migrant flashpoint on the Macedonia border where thousands have been living in squalid conditions for more than 3 months.

Over 800 people were put on buses to newly-opened camps in the vicinity of Greece's second city Thessaloniki, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) to the south in an operation that began shortly after sunrise, police said.

The authorities said priority would be given to unaccompanied minors and single-parent families.

Most media were kept at a distance, but footage and images handed out by state TV ERT and state agency ANA, who were allowed access, showed migrants queueing up to board buses and being driven away, some of them waving at the camera.

Many carried their worldly goods in huge bin bags, while others piled belongings into pushchairs, watched at a distance by groups of dark blue-clad police in white helmets.

A group of children – one of them a young boy who struggled over the bumpy ground in a wheelchair – played nearby as they waited their turn to leave.

Many of the migrants are fleeing war, persecution and poverty in the Middle East and Asia.

Their transfer comes after a brutal winter of freezing rain and mud which saw many people trying to force their way across the border, sometimes resulting in violent encounters with the Macedonian police.

Officials said Tuesday's operation was proceeding smoothly in the flashpoint camp.

"The operation began on Tuesday around 0400 GMT and is taking place slowly and in a calm atmosphere. There has not been any need to use force," Yiorgos Kyritsis, the government's migration spokesman, told AFP.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) representative Vicky Markolefa agreed that the operation was calm, as the camp's loudspeakers blared out information on the transfer in Arabic and English.

But she noted that a police cordon thrown around the camp – mainly to keep media out – had prevented access to many humanitarian workers for the day.

"This complicates food handout efforts and sanitation maintenance for those who will remain in the camp," she told AFP.

An overcrowded camp packed with some 8,400 desperate refugees and migrants, Idomeni has become a potent symbol of the human suffering and chaos as Europe struggles to cope with its worst migrant crisis since World War II.

A helicopter hovered overhead as the operation got under way, with police sources saying at least 700 officers were involved in the evacuation which aims to clear the camp and gradually take the people to reception centers and camps dotted around the country.

A 10-day process

At its height, there were more than 12,000 people crammed into Idomeni, a camp originally opened by aid groups last year to accommodate just 2,500 people in what was, at the time, a short procedure to cross the border.

But the camp exploded in size after Balkan states began closing their borders in mid-February in a bid to stem the human tide seeking passage to northern Europe.

On Monday, May 23, Kyritsis said the operation to clear all 8,400 people living there would take at least 10 days.

Officials have said 6,000 spots are available at reception centers, and that most of the migrants are to be moved to camps at former industrial facilities near Thessaloniki.

Many of the camp's residents are women and children keen to be reunited with male relatives who have pushed ahead on their own – with the aid of smugglers – hoping to find a place of refuge in EU states more financially viable than debt-hit Greece.

The leftist government of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has for months been trying to persuade migrants to move away from makeshift tent encampments at Idomeni and at the port of Piraeus for their own comfort and safety.

2,000 rescued off Libya

Over the past two weeks, Greek officials have managed to convince some 2,500 people to leave Idomeni, while the number at Piraeus was brought down from around 5,000 people in March to 1,500.

But many are wary of relocating to organized camps away from the border or the city of Athens, because it could be harder to find people-smuggling contacts.

There are over 54,000 migrants stranded in Greece, according to government estimates.

Meanwhile, around 2,000 migrants seeking to reach Europe from Africa were plucked to safety from unseaworthy boats in the Mediterranean in 15 operations off the coast of Libya on Monday, the Italian coastguard service said.

So far this year, the International Organization for Migration says an estimated 190,000 migrants and refugees have entered Europe by sea, arriving in Italy, Greece, Cyprus, and Spain. Another 1,359 have died en route. – Vassilis Kyriakoulis with Catherine Boitard in Athens, AFP /