'Fences won't stop people. Desperation is the most powerful force we know'
The Balkans has seen refugees come and go for centuries. Now, they carry mobile phones and their last savings, but they are just as desperate as their predecessors
Published 10/01/2016 | 02:30
The rain was belting against the window as we pushed north. Somewhere in the trees that covered the hillsides, migrants and refugees were trying to sleep. We passed a police van pulled in at the side of the road. A group of men had been stopped and were being questioned. They were carrying what they owned in small rucksacks and were soaking wet.
I was dozing, half listening to the driver who was telling the story of a German reporter he'd worked with during the Kosovo war in 1999. She'd pleaded with him to take her from Greece into Macedonia and on through Serbia into the war zone. But he wouldn't drive beyond the Macedonian border. He recalled: "I said to her: 'wait, wait, there are too many bombs and shootings.' She wouldn't listen." The reporter went ahead with an Albanian driver and was killed at a Serb checkpoint.
A memory of the Kosovo war came floating up: fleeing refugees being held up by Albanian bandits who stole the UN blankets they'd been given just a few moments before. A policeman tried to intervene and a bandit showed his gun. The thieving continued.
These Balkan roads have seen refugees come and go for centuries. The Munster Fusiliers came here in the late autumn of 1915. They witnessed a pitiful exodus. Between 1912 and 1923, some 2.5 million refugees fled from their homes in this region, the majority never to return. The Greek city of Thessaloniki - a way station for today's refugees - was immortalised in a Cork song Salonika, a wry commentary on the travails of the Munsters in the Balkans.
And when the war is over what will the soldiers do,
They'll be walking around with a leg and a half,
And the slackers they'll have two,
So right away, so right away, so right away, so right away,
So right away Salonika, right away me soldier boy.
The reality encountered by the Munster men was harrowing. As Philip Orr wrote in Ireland and The Great War, one Munster Fusilier saw a "heart-rending sight … thin, half-clad, starved women and children with sore bare feet … husbands drove little skeletons of donkeys loaded with all their belongings, consisting of a few old tins and spare clothing."
We drove on and crossed the old front line where the Munsters fought until the end of the war.
These days, the refugees heading north from Athens have shoes and coats, mobile phones and whatever is left of their savings. By the time they reach Idomeni, on the border, they have had to pay smugglers, bus and taxi drivers.
Like the Kosovar Albanians of the Nineties, the Congolese of the last 20 years, the Latinos trying to reach North America, they belong to a world whose borders are forever shrinking.
The Balkan route is criss-crossed with gates and fences now. The wide open roads of the autumn have been blocked to all but Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis. So the Eritreans, Congolese, the Algerians, Moroccans, and numerous others are sent back from the border.
Nobody has yet explained to me why the pre-selection of migrants cannot be done in Athens. Why is it necessary to bring people all the way to the border only to turn them around?
The aid agency, Medecins Sans Frontieres, has been making a fuss about this, but nobody seems to be listening.
The idea is that people will be offered the choice of applying for asylum in Greece - where they can try to survive in a struggling economy - or opt to be repatriated to the countries they've left.
If this keeps up, Greece could be in for serious trouble with a massive build-up of refugees.
The rain had paused by the time we reached Idomeni. A couple of Macedonian cops were smoking on the other side of the fence. They were bored and cold. On the Greek side, a few men were sitting around a brazier warming their hands. This was as far as they could get.
Further along there were some coaches filled with people, mainly young men from North Africa, who were being sent to Athens.
I met some Algerians who were stamping their feet against the cold. They were fleeing poverty. "If you don't have money in our country, you are crushed," one said.
The year has begun with Sweden and Denmark introducing border controls. The Turks have introduced new visa rules which are aimed at dramatically reducing the number of Syrians transiting through the country to Europe.
What we can see is the problem being pushed back southwards. I doubt that visas or fences will ultimately keep people out. It may stem the flow for a while but desperation is the most powerful motive force we know. People will find other means.
In Lesbos, the wind had fallen away. The water was calm again. It was my first time back since the great migrations of the late summer. Boats were still coming, though fewer because of the winter conditions. The smugglers have dropped their prices to encourage more customers.
On our second day, a dinghy hit the rocks just after leaving the Turkish side - 31 people, including children, were drowned. I met some of the lucky ones who'd made it across on other boats.
A Syrian father clutched his three-month-old baby and looked skywards, mouthing a prayer of thanks. Next to him a mother was changing her baby's nappy.
There was a group of young Congolese men who seemed to be led by a redoubtable middle-aged woman. Her good humour and energy kept them all moving, up the muddy track away from the beach and towards the UN coaches.
In the late afternoon I visited the graveyard that overlooks the narrow crossing from Turkey. In the corner, past the well-tended graves of the locals, was a patch of rough ground.
Here lay the mostly unmarked graves of migrants and refugees, whose bodies were recovered from the sea. The gravedigger wandered across and began to explain that in the beginning he had not known to place Muslims facing towards Mecca. But once he learned, he made sure that every new drowning victim was accorded the proper burial. He said this earnestly and without elaboration.
On one of the graves there was a piece of stone. The gravedigger had written the simple inscription "An Afghan toddler." To the left lay a child's soft toy, placed perhaps by a relative or sympathetic local. Such was the monument to this child of our time.
Fergal Keane is a BBC Special Correspondent