'Deplorable': Refugees Face Tear Gas, Rubber Bullets at Greece-Macedonia Border

Around 11,000 migrants have been living "in the open in dismal conditions" for weeks after Balkan states closed their borders, cutting off access to Western Europe. (Photo: Getty)

'Deplorable': Refugees Face Tear Gas, Rubber Bullets at Greece-Macedonia Border

'A pregnant woman came into the clinic with her two children; she was close to the border when tear gas was used, people started to run, she fell down.'

Following reports that hundreds of refugees and migrants--including women and children--were wounded on Sunday when Macedonian police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at crowds on the Greek side of the border, protesters marched in the small village of Idomeni on Monday, highlighting what one human rights expert described as an "absurd humanitarian crisis" that is "becoming more unbearable by the day."

Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said Sunday that Macedonian police had employed tear gas, rubber bullets, and stun grenades to disperse crowds gathered in front of the Greek police barricade at the Idomeni border crossing. Idomeni is home to a sprawling, makeshift refugee camp where thousands are stuck in "purgatory."

"Today, frustration and a growing feeling of anger are spread among the refugees who have been stranded in Idomeni for over one month," said Jose Hulsenbek, MSF's head of mission in Greece. "What we see is the inevitable result of thousands being trapped in Greece, a country unable to respond to the humanitarian and protection needs of those in search of safety in Europe."

Deutsche Welle reported:

Clouds of chemicals spread throughout the refugee camp and the village of Idomeni. People with red eyes attempted to cover the gas clouds with blankets. Some refugees had smeared toothpaste on their faces, foreseeing the tear gas and hoping to mitigate its effects. Activists had brought washbasins to allow those who had been hit to rinse their eyes.

"Do you see this?" a refugee who was watching the clashes said. "This is like Palestine, Gaza."

The Macedonian police deployed the tear gas for over two hours. They even threw stones and later fired water cannons and rubber bullets. People were fainting; volunteers and activists rushed to get them out of the conflict zone and provide first aid.

MSF said its teams treated 300 people on Sunday, including 200 with respiratory problems after being subjected to tear gas and around 30 children between 5 and 15 years old. Dozens of patients received psychological care as they were in shock, according to MSF, and seven people with open wounds or suspected fractures were referred to a local hospital.

"The MSF clinic has been full all day," said Conor Kenny, MSF doctor in Idomeni. "Three children were brought in with head injuries due to rubber bullets. People outside were shouting and many of them were carrying rubber bullets in their hands. A pregnant woman from Syria came into the clinic with her two children; she told me she was close to the border when tear gas was used to disperse the crowd, people started to run and she fell down."

Protests began again on Monday morning.

The United Nations' refugee agency, UNHCR, on Monday condemned the use of force, saying it was "a matter of great worry to UNHCR" and "should be too for all who are concerned with Europe's response to the situation of refugees and migrants."

"Time and again in recent months we have seen tension unfolding at various European borders, between security forces on the one hand and people fleeing war and in need of help on the other," said UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards. "People get hurt and property is damaged. Harm is done to perceptions of refugees and to Europe's image alike. Everyone loses."

What's more, Edwards said the episode should serve as a reminder that while chaos unfolds in the Aegean islands and in Turkey, the situation is similarly desperate in Idomeni, where "about 11,000 have been sleeping for many weeks now in the open in dismal conditions, fueling hopelessness and despair."

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras chimed in on Monday, saying the actions by Macedonian police brought "great shame" to Europe. Greek government spokesman George Kyritsis added: "The indiscriminate use of chemicals, rubber bullets and stun grenades against vulnerable populations... is a dangerous and deplorable act."

Indeed, said MSF's Hulsenbek, "What people need is to be treated with dignity, not violence or unpredictable border closures and more uncertainty. This absurd humanitarian crisis created by European states' policies is becoming more unbearable by the day."

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.