Recently I read ‘The New Odyssey’ by Philip Kingsley, New York Times journalist and at the time of writing, migration correspondent for the Guardian. For anyone who has not read this, it is an in-depth account of the migration routes across Europe in 2015 and follows the story of one particular man, Hashem al-Souki as he and his family leave Damascus, in the hope of a new life in Sweden.
Although I could never do justice to the depth at which Kingsley immerses himself in the Middle East and Europe, I was struck by how different the situation is now, just three years on. As a result, I have decided to capture some of the refugees stories I have met and paint a picture of how the current situation is for migrants traversing Europe.
The situation across Europe is ever changing. Borders are harder to cross; refugees are having to wait, in some cases years, for asylum but the one constant, is people are still coming. Although we are not seeing the scale of 2015, over 80 000 have crossed the border into Europe so far in 2018 (UNHCR) and working on the streets in Greece, I cannot see this changing in the imminent future.
I have therefore decided to explore, in a series of 5 articles, individual stories from some of the people I meet. I am currently based in Thessaloniki, Northern Greece, working alongside a medical organisation as a physiotherapist and the most common route onward from here is Macedonia.
At the time of Kingsley’s writing in 2015, Macedonia was still relatively easy to cross. The situation he describes was a ‘legal illegal’ border crossing, which refugees (predominantly Syrians) queued at and passed through. During the crossing he undertook, the refugees tried to cross a few miles further down and were caught and redirected by police to cross at the illegal checkpoint.
Reading this, I was surprised at how easy it had been. Working for two months in Northern Greece I was regularly seeing people return to Thessaloniki who had failed to cross the Macedonian border and had been turned away by police, often sustaining beatings. The other stark difference is, in 2015 many refugees travelled independently, following friends instructions on whatsapp or facebook, who had previously had successful crossings. Now, as the borders have become increasingly difficult, the majority of people I meet, are resorting to smugglers to reach Skopje.
Predominantly the stories I tell will be from Afghan and Pakistani men. The men I meet on the street are more frequently from these countries as they do not have priority for the camps and often want to reach other countries before seeking asylum. Within the refugee world it appears to me, that single male migrants face a huge amount of discrimination, both inside and outside of camps. I want to share their journeys and challenges, as they endeavour to reach Western Europe.
Although these series of articles will explore individual stories, primarily my work is medical. One of the boys featured in this series recently returned after another failed border crossing with severe knee pain and swelling having been caught by police. When captured, they are taken back over the border and made to walk back in the direction they came; the majority return to Thessaloniki. Those that return to Thessaloniki, return to see us the next day, so we can attend to their medical needs. After walking a 250 km round trip in just two days, as well as sleeping rough and the anxieties that come with using smugglers, our services (and friendships) are in high demand. I am writing to inform people not only of the current situation in Northern Greece but also to share individual stories from some of the incredible people that make my working day so special. However, neither this, nor my work would be possible without donations, so if any of the stories make you feel empathy for the boys and their struggles and make you realise how essential the medical work we do here is, please donate below.