A huge thank you to all the dedicated knitters who have helped to create 15 blankets, scarves and even a knitted jumper for refugees on the Greece/Macedonia border. I've lost count of how many knitters there are, but at least 15. We meet on Monday and Tuesday mornings for an hour. Some cannot make it so they knit at home. However small the contribution is ( like mine!) we welcome it. We have also been donated a lot of wool, which means we can keep going, so another big thank you for this. Let's face it, the migration problem isn't going to be solved overnight! We have a very small but thinly spread human chain now between Ampleforth and Idomeni camp, via one of Jennifer Smith's sons. Richard lives in Greece and has been able to take our blankets in person to this camp. Jennifer has bravely accompanied him back to Greece! Below is part of a report that he wrote in March when he ﬁrst went to the camp. He will be in touch very soon, to show the blankets being received, hopefully.
Observations on seeing the Idomeni camp
I promised you a letter about my recent visit to Idomeni, where 13,000+ migrants are stuck after Macedonia closed the border. I have been watching the News on BBC World and it showed migrants in Idomeni climbing blossoming cherry trees to rip off branches for ﬁrewood. I thought about this and decided to put 7 boxes of olive ﬁrewood into the car (about 200kg) and then I thought that if I was going to Idomeni, I ought to clear the soon to be overripe fruit off the citrus trees too – this came to 40kg of oranges, satsumas, pomegranates, grapefruit and lemons in a large laundry basket. Finally I grabbed a bag and ﬁlled it with stuff like Deep Heat and toothpaste and toiletries plus 5 surplus jumpers.
The sun was shining and off I drove on Monday afternoon which was 7th March 2016. For the last 6 weeks there has been a general strike and all the motorways have been blocked by tractors. I found to my surprise that the militant tractors were back in their barracks (farms) and the motorway was clear. It is about 3 hours from Mount Pelion to the border with Macedonia.
By the time I reached Idomeni it was twilight and raining. I saw police directing cars but otherwise the road was ﬁlled with groups of bedraggled migrants carrying bags, pushing push chairs and even wheel chairs. I had not seen these people on the motorway, and I think they must have been bussed from Athens only as far as the motorway. I felt bad that I could not ﬁt anyone in.
I asked a policeman if there was anywhere I could unload ﬁrewood to keep it dry. He gave me more of an “I don’t care” than “I don’t know” look. I parked next to a VW van which had its back open and up like an awning. It was full of food which was free to all comers. There were two elderly Greek men doling it out. The migrants were all wearing rain ponchos which they must have been given, and they looked a bit ghostly.
I walked up to the main camp which looked like a cross between Glastonbury and a Breugel painting.There was a long line of hundreds of people in hooded ponchos queuing up for a Styrofoam cup of hot soup, from a volunteer stand.Tents of all colours and sizes were pegged out as far as the eye could see and rain water was starting to pool in between some of them, as the grass had been churned to mud. The tents were on both sides of the road and up to and actually on the railway line which crosses the border. There were Greek police forming a human chain blocking the railway line further up and a fairly angry mob was climbing the fence and yelling.
There were a lot of outside broadcast media vans. l spoke to what I think was a BBC reporter and an English voiced man spoke to me. I asked him who was organising the camp and he pointed me to some large white tents about 100m further on as UNHCR. I still had my bag, which I gave to a pair of ladies in hijabs who looked very grateful and went off to their tent.
All over the camp there were women tending open ﬁres in pits sunk in the earth. The rain was getting stronger, and as a thunder storm began, I went off into the dark and the driving rain to ﬁnd somewhere to spend the night. I made my way along to the UNHCR tent, which huddled in between seven huge MSF mobile hospital tents. MSF had put up notices in Arabic, Urdu, Pashtun and English saying “Free Doctor” and all the tents were full with separate queues of men and women, some with children. There was an air of orderliness. There were long queues for a small number of showers and twenty Portaloos. That is one Portaloo to 650+ migrants.
I asked them at the UNHCR where someone would go to register that they could house an asylum seeker family. I am thinking of this, having a big house and being recently widowed. They said that they did not know about that – to ask MSF who organised all that sort of thing. I could not believe it. It dawned on me that no-one was in charge and all the food and so on was left to volunteers. MSF had the experience from war zones etc. and had set up very professionally. Apart from the police, the only manifestation of the Greek state I saw was the public health van which seemed to be picking up litter in black sacks. By contrast I heard quite a few English voices among volunteers. In daylight I could appreciate the sheer size of the camp. I noticed that the Fruit and Veg man had arrived with his van and was doing a brisk trade. A burger van had arrived. A bloke in a leather jacket and smoking a cigarette was selling mobile phone chargers at hugely inﬂated prices.
I read somewhere that Britain agreed in September to take 4000 Syrian asylum seekers from camps in Lebanon in a year. In September more than 4000 migrants a DAY were landing on the shores of Lesbos, Chios, Samos and Cos. Even now the number is in the thousands. Greece has one sixth of the population of Britain, but has by default to house all these migrants somehow until either the borders are reopened or Europe gets its act together.
I think whatever someone’s view about immigration, someone in a makeshift camp in Northern Greece in the Winter, not knowing what will happen, and stuck there dependent on the support of volunteers for an indeterminate length of time, is just a human being in need of help. Richard