The Greek authorities launched a large-scale operation on May 24 to evacuate people from the Idomeni refugee camp on the border with Macedonia.
Macedonia closed its southern border with Greece to migrants on March 8 following the EU decision to end illegal migration along the so-called Western Balkans route. Since then some 11,800 migrants have been sent back to Greece, according to a Macedonian interior ministry official. Closure of the camp is expected to normalise the situation at the Greece-Macedonia border, where the railway line has been blocked by protesting migrants, and there have been periodic events to break through the border into Macedonia.
The evacuation that started in the early hours is proceeding smoothly, Greek newspaper Kathimerini said, citing officials.
According to Kathimerini, the police have so far managed to transfer over 800 people from the Idomeni camp to facilities in and around the northern city of Thessaloniki. The existing facilities can house up to 6,500 people and more reception centers will be built to accommodate arrivals from Idomeni.
“The aim is to have the camp, which at its peak numbered over 14,000 migrants and refugees living in tents, emptied by next week,” government’s spokesperson for the management of the refugee crisis, Giorgos Kyritsis, was cited by Kathimerini.
Kyritsis added that 2,500 migrants have been already transferred over the past week, before the May 24 operation.
An estimated 8,400 people, including hundreds of children, mostly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq are currently stranded in the Idomeni camp.
Migrants live in the Idomeni camp in overcrowded conditions with incidents taking place on a daily basis. On April 10, around 260 migrants and 23 members of the Macedonian security forces were injured in clashes on the border when a large group of migrants tried to cross into Macedonia after rumours that the border had been opened.
The only nongovernmental organisations that will be permitted to keep up to five representatives at Idomeni to oversee the evacuation are Doctors Without Borders, Doctors of the World, the UNCHR, Praxis, Arsis, Intervolve, Samaritan’s Purse, Oikopolis, the Red Cross and Hot Food Eidomeni, the Greek police said, according to the newspaper.
The Greek authorities also announced they are willing to reopen a railway line to the Balkans via Macedonia that runs through the camp and has been blocked by protesting migrants since March 20.
The blockage of the railway line is causing large losses to businesses in Macedonia particularly for import and export companies. The railway operator Makedonski Zeleznici Transport suffered losses of over €1.5mn until May 12 due to the blockage. Freight transport has been reduced by an annual 80% while the company is operating at 20% of capacity, Macedonian broadcaster Sitel reported on May 12, citing the director of Makedonski Zeleznici Transport, Nikola Kostov.
Some 187,000 asylum seekers have crossed into Greece and Italy from the beginning of 2016 to May 11, of whom only 155,765 are currently in Greece, according to the International Organization for Migration.
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