Checkpoints & roadblocks
Stuck on the refugee trail
Sitting on a splintery wooden bench on a brisk afternoon in early December, Umm Farah smoked cigarettes in rapid succession as she recalled how she made it from Syria to the Greek island of Lesbos.
Accompanied only by her five-year-old granddaughter, Selma, she explained that they are waiting in the activist-run Pikpa refugee shelter until her son, who is hospitalised with a head injury in Turkey, heals and is able to join them.
Umm Farah, who did not provide her full name, and Selma are among those who are stuck along the route to Europe for one reason or another - border closures, lack of money, vulnerability, physical inability to continue.
According to the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, more than a million refugees and migrants had arrived in Europe by boat last year. Another estimated 132,000 people have made it to Europe by sea so far in 2016.
The 64-year-old swiped the screen, moving from one photograph to the next, taking deep drags from her cigarette. On the screen were images of her hometown Homs before the war in Syria started nearly five years ago. Other images showed the mounds of destruction after unarmed protests were replaced by armed struggle and bloodletting.
Other photos were of death. She listed her relation to each lifeless cadaver: a son, two brothers, an uncle.
"This child has seen more in six years than most people see in their entire lives," she said of her granddaughter.
As she spoke, Selma played with a group of children, Afghan refugees, understanding one another despite not sharing a common language. They chased each other around the picnic table, laughter occasionally giving way to panting.
"She knows the difference between every type of warplane and weapon. Most of her friends were killed," Umm Farah continued.
"This child has seen more in six years than most people see in their entire lives."
As the days drag on, they wait idly in Pikpa. After more than three months, however, it is still unclear when she will be able to continue forward, she explains.
Even then, she has not yet decided where to go. "I don't know the difference between most foreign countries," she said.
"I had never thought of leaving Syria before. Our country was paradise, but we may never see it again. Our area is very dangerous."
Most refugees and migrants move on from the Greek islands to mainland Europe by ferry, a ride that can take up to 12 hours.
Once in Athens, some head straight towards the Macedonian border to continue the journey, while others stay over to rest or wait for relatives to send money.
Thousands are stuck in limbo, however, due to border closures across the Balkans. In November, Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov announced that his country would not allow passage for those who cannot prove citizenship in Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan.
Deeming them "economic migrants", he claimed that the presence of more than 2,000 refugees or migrants at any given moment would result in "permanent and direct threats and risks for national security".
In February, Serbia and Macedonia yet again tightened border restrictions, barring passage for Afghan refugees.
"In effect, the policy is to drown the refugees and get it over with."
Alaa, a 36-year-old Palestinian refugee from Lebanon's Ain al-Hilweh camp, was blocked by Macedonian border police from continuing to Germany with his wife and five-year-old daughter.
Unlike his wife and daughter, Alaa doesn't carry Syrian citizenship. Having built a life in Damascus, it was no longer an option to return to Ain al-Hilweh, where his parents' home was destroyed during infighting between Palestinian factions in September.
With the assistance of the UNHCR, Alaa tried to coordinate passage and reunite with his family. "It feels hopeless," he said.
He was at the Taekwondo Olympic stadium on the outskirts of Athens with more than 2,000 others who were denied entry into Macedonia and were now stuck in Greece. They were housed at the facility for nearly two weeks before being moved to another abandoned stadium.
"Wherever Palestinians go, the borders are closed for us. OK, if you don't want us in Europe, then help us return to Palestine," he said.
"Our fate is in God's hands now," he concluded.
With the borders sealed for many, the future is unclear as anti-refugee sentiment soars in countries like Germany and Sweden.
Seraphim Seferiades, a political science professor at Panteion University in Athens, said that European countries were "totally unprepared" for the refugee crisis rocking the continent.
"This is a very systemic problem," he said. "The refugee issue didn't just happen. It's organic and grew from the global situation."
The policy of differentiating between refugees and "economic migrants", Seferiades argued, is part of a strategy designed to stem the tide of arrivals. "They will divide people into further subcategories so they can exclude more and more people," he explained.
Entry point for the Global South
When Macedonia first shut its gates, thousands of people were left camping at the Idomeni crossing and, in essence, blocked from applying for asylum in other European countries.
Crowded tents provided little protection from the rainy weather of early winter. With no access to showers and a lack of clean food and water, illnesses gripped many of the nearly 3,500 people in Idomeni.
Among those with dashed dreams on the borders were people from Morocco, Pakistan, Iran, Eritrea, Somalia, Tunisia, Lebanon and elsewhere.
Solidarity activists from across Europe and humanitarian organisations flocked to the crossing and set up shop. With limited resources and swelling numbers of people, however, they were unable to do much to alleviate the hardships people were enduring.
Next to the abandoned duty-free station on the train tracks connecting the two countries, a large billboard was blanketed in declarations of support.
"Solidarity with people struggling in [Idomeni] and all the migrants who are breaking the violent borders of Europe," one note from Slovenia proclaimed. "You are not alone in this struggle."
Seferiades said Idomeni had become, for a brief moment, Europe's first "entry point for the Global South", emphasising the European Union's obligation to handle the crisis in a rational and responsible manner.
"It has to be stressed that [refugees and migrants] are less than one percent of the European population," the professor said. "They could so easily distribute these people because their number is quite small in relation to Europe's total population."
"This is not to mention the EU responsibility for wars and economic ruin in many of these countries."
Seferiades argued that the border closures - by both EU member states and non-EU countries - are evidence that "Europe does not want to solve the refugee crisis".
"The policy is to shoot [the refugees and migrants] on the borders, to push them out and to leave them at sea. They just won't say it openly."
"In effect, the policy is to drown the refugees and get it over with," he argued, referring to the more than 3,750 people who drowned with their boats capsized at sea in 2015.
Ali, who withheld his last name for fear of his family's safety, travelled to Idomeni all the way from the Balochistan region of Pakistan.
The 22-year-old student, who fled the country before completing his final year of university, was huddled fireside with around a dozen of his compatriots.
Rejecting the assertion that they were motivated by economic reasons, he said that fighting between Pakistan's security forces and the decades-old Baloch separatist movement had become unbearable.
The fire crackling behind him, he asked, "How are we expected to now return to Pakistan when we are Baloch?"
In recent years, hundreds have been killed during the separatist insurgency in the Balochistan province.
With local governance effectively controlled by Pakistan's military, Human Rights Watch (HRW) notes that Baloch activists have been targeted in "enforced disappearances" carried out by individuals and groups linked to the state security apparatus.
"Please do one thing for us: Tell Europe why we are coming," he said. "We don't want to take anyone's jobs or countries. We just want to live in security."
"We don't want to take anyone's jobs or countries. We just want to live in security."
The following day, on December 9, Greek police swarmed the Idomeni encampment, confiscating tents and putting the inhabitants on busses back to Athens, where many are still waiting in government-run shelters.
Greece is meant to transfer 66,000 asylum seekers to other EU countries over the course of the next two years. Yet, a mere 157 have been sent elsewhere in the EU since the plan was created in September 2015, according to HRW.
"Greece has its fair share of responsibility for the situation on the ground, but turning the country into a warehouse is no solution to Europe's refugee crisis," Eva Cosse, HRW's Greece specialist, said in a statement last month.
"Trapping asylum seekers in substandard conditions in Greece would be disastrous for these women, men and children, and is the exact opposite of the kind of sharing of responsibility that we need to see," Cosse added. "It would also signal an utter lack of leadership by the EU in the continuing global refugee crisis."
From Greece, those who are able to pass through Macedonia are swiftly bussed through the country and to the Serbian border - a ride that takes less than an hour on most days.
Many of the refugees and migrants entering Serbia, however, skipped the sea route altogether and made it to Europe by braving a treacherous land route through Turkey and into Bulgaria.
At the Miksaliste refugee transit centre in Belgrade, Serbia, more than 200 Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans stop over for food and clean clothes each day, according to Tajana Zadravec, operations assistant and volunteer manager at Refugee Aid Serbia.
Several Afghan refugees - among them several small children - crowded around an outdoor electric heater on an early December morning. Chatting, they drank hot tea and ate soup as they prepared to press on to elsewhere in Europe.
Miksaliste provides services for coming from Macedonia, as well as refugees who took a land route into Bulgaria. Zadravec explained that refugees who passed through Bulgaria were often in a much worse physical and mental state than others.
Bulgarian authorities have been accused by rights groups of extortion, as well as beating, robbing and detaining refugees for weeks on end.
Ahmed, 18, left his home in the Kundar province of Afghanistan for Germany in late September.
Since 2001, his country has been enduring a brutal war between the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the US and Afghan forces on the one hand, and the Taliban on the other.
Shortly after sending Ahmed to search for a safer life in Germany, the violence forced his parents and younger siblings to flee to Lahore in neighbouring Pakistan.
But, after travelling for a month to pass through Iran and Turkey, Ahmed's dream of asylum was put on hold upon his arrival in Bulgaria. He was arrested and put in a refugee detention centre for nearly a month.
"They took my phone, my 800 euros [$890], my belongings," he said. "They beat us a lot."
According to a report published by the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights and Oxfam, there is a "consistent picture of alleged violations" against refugees in Bulgaria.
Based on more than 100 interviews with refugees and migrants, the testimonies "tell of extortion, robbery, physical violence, threats of deportation and police dog attacks".
"They took my phone, my 800 euros, my belongings. They beat us a lot."
For the time being, however, Ahmed is stuck in Belgrade. Despite the bone-chilling weather and the frequent rain, he sleeps in a small tent in a nearby park. He visits Miksaliste each day for food, clean clothes and to shower.
More worrying for Ahmed was that Bulgarian police took his fingerprints.
The EU's Dublin Regulation stipulates that asylum-seekers must apply in the first member country they entered. Records of fingerprints are stored in EURODAC, a database, in order to ensure that asylum-seekers do not apply in other countries.
"I'm scared that if I make it to Germany, they'll deport me back to Bulgaria. After what they did to us, I'd rather go back to Afghanistan."
"Without money, I cannot travel," he said, "and I haven't been able to reach my family since I was arrested in Bulgaria. I don't know what to do now."
Like many others across the refugee trail, Ahmed does not know when, if ever, he will be able to continue his journey.
"We left because of the war," he said. "I just want to live somewhere where I can study and work, where I can do something with my life."
He paused, concluding: "Somewhere without war."
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