Idomeni: Let’s not, once again, be tragically below par

Giorgos Moutafis for SolidarityNow

by Elli Xenou, Director of Programs, SolidarityNow
(article published in Huffington Post, Greece, 3.12.2015)

Border of Greece – FYROM, Idomeni. Old images come to my mind, trucks with medical supplies crossing the border, army, police and NGOs: the scene of another, previous crisis, the war in Kosovo and former Yugoslavia…
I recover the image from an inner need of mine to place my thoughts in order, to add a historical aspect to the crisis, when I hear and see images again of the area this past summer.

I am able recall the scene when it is replaced by a new one: thousands of people, children, women and chaos, shoving and violence, injuries, people screaming and crying when FYROM temporarily closed the exit towards Europe, at the beginning of this summer. This exit is still in the making, though, for millions of Arabs, Asians and Africans. This is the phenomenon that UNHCR calls “the big march” – that is, a great flow of populations escaping from a hectic, unsafe, and in fact absurd world, hearing towards the civilized and rational West.

I find it unnecessary to comment on whether or not the West actually lives up to the aforementioned positive characterizations. There have been many words, articles and analyses written about the West and its inferiority, anyway. But on top of that, comments are excessive since we can only be judged based on the results of our actions.

A temporary camp was created in the summer in Idomeni, through the contribution of the state, UNHCR, local bodies, and NGOs. This transit camp has allowed a smooth and dignified passage of thousands of people to FYROM and other host countries. An undeniable “success story” to address the humanitarian crisis faced by Greece and FYROM: a small triumph of a cross-border cooperation under emergency conditions and good organization in terms of volunteers, NGOs and international organizations cooperating in the field. All this has helped hinder the creation of bottlenecks and has facilitated both states in their work by providing basic support and services to the “people on the move”.

Being vulnerable to external factors over time and international politics, this organized approach to combat the humanitarian crisis – that is, the system which has worked so far in Idomeni -as many similar ones in other international crises- has been proven too weak to cope with increased flows, increased length of stay – meaning increased and more complex needs, confined populations and everything else that will be brought upon by closing the borders – especially if this becomes permanent with the raising of a new fence – and the advent of winter.

New tensions were created in Idomeni, in November 2015. While FYROM allows the passage of Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans, it closes the door on other nationalities trying to pass through, and go to Central Europe. The situation remains unsettled and the future looks uncertain.

Did this historical perspective of the crisis help me eventually make a conclusion?
The fact that the causes of crises are always complex and that the power players always prove to be below par, is rather obvious.
However, there is something that is not as obvious as it should be. And this is, -if not the humanitarian ideal- the humanitarian obligation, at least. It is the duty of all those involved to facilitate and ensure access to basic goods and services, under safe and decent living, food and health conditions, to all and to the Third Country Nationals (TCNs) that are located at or pass by Idomeni, on their way to other destinations. This should be an obvious basis for communication and a practical axis for direct intervention and action for all those involved in handling the crisis.

At the same time, there are other human and legal rights that TCN possess, according not only to international humanitarian law, but also refugee and immigration law: the status of international humanitarian protection, the right to seek asylum, the right to temporary residence etc. Here things get more complicated. International practices differ and the broader geopolitical developments constitute key factors in crisis management, such as the one we are now facing, which transcend the narrow range of humanism and ultimately evolve into international, political and social crises.
The humanitarian tradition of crisis management does not have much to offer on this second level. But it has much to require from the first.

As the temperature drops in Idomeni and hypothermia cases rise, dilapidated buildings of the nearby railway station remain closed. Before we think or work out complex solutions that require multilevel consensus, why can’t we agree on what is obvious – that is, agree to open these buildings and used them as temporary shelters for people arriving in Idomeni?
SolidarityNow has already asked the state and local authorities to allocate these buildings and has ensured its commitment to take care of their renovation and operation.

Let’s finally agree on what is obvious. Idomeni, Lesvos, Leros, the Dodecanese and the map only expands… There are no holistic solutions for these people, and this is not a failure of ours only as a country, but as Europe, as the Western World, as the one expected to ensure a better tomorrow. Let’s, at least, follow the example set by the residents of the areas who welcomed these people: let’s protect them by providing them with the basics. Let’s not be tragically below par.