At Idomeni, on the Greek border with Macedonia, the refugees are still gathering in their thousands.
In the muddy squalour of an informal tent encampment, babies are being born. In one case, captured by a photographer, the newborn was washed in a puddle.
Elsewhere, people smugglers were signing off on deals with the Turkish mafia as they found new ways to get people into the European Union.
Whatever the EU’s deal with Turkey – even if it works in its own, highly controversial terms – there seems no end in sight to the crisis of the migration trail.
Photo: Vadim Ghirda/AP
“For decades smugglers have been working in Turkey to take people to Europe,” Abu Hassan, one of Istanbul’s leading smugglers told The Sunday Telegraph. “The Macedonian border shutting will not stop us — this migration will never stop.
“Borders closing just means the price goes up. There are always ways.”
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The closure of the Macedonian border is part of the turn against migrants by central and southern European countries that triggered the deal under which the EU will return refugees to Turkey in exchange for a more formal system of population transfer.
But smugglers like Abu Hassan say they will simply change the routes by which they get people to Europe. He said he was now concentrating on buying decommissioned container ships to take up thousands of people to Italy at a time.
“There’s one being sold for scrap that could fit 5,000 people in it,” he said. “It costs around $600,000. We would charge people about $2,500 to travel in this ship to Italy.”
Photo: SAKIS MITROLIDIS/AFP
That figure is about three times the current price of a boat to Greece, a route which Abu Hassan has exploited with ruthless efficiency until now.
He is the “second in command” to Abu Ali, one of Istanbul’s three major people smugglers – two, really, now that one, known as “The Doctor”, was arrested recently.
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A well-built, softly-spoken 29-year-old from Damascus, he said his smuggling outfit was one of several to run container ships filled with migrants from the Turkish ports of Mercin and Bodrum to Italy before Germany opened its border last summer.
He said after a crackdown in those two towns, he was looking for new ports. “By the beginning of the summer, we’ll be ready,” he said.
Photo: Visar Kryeziu/AP
Donald Tusk, the European Council president, last week insisted that the deal with Turkey to deport boat people was a “very clear message that the days of irregular migration to the European Union are over.”
But some 3,304 people arrived on the Greek islands by rubber dinghy on Thursday. Figures released by the Greek authorities yesterday said there were now 12,000 at Idomeni, a miserable, muddy border camp.
Medics report rising numbers of cases of gastroenteritis, lung infection, hypothermia and even gangrene.
EU officials fear the now-shut Balkans route will simply “fragment” into vast game of cat-and-mouse between migrants against border guards across southern Europe.
Ashan, a 19-year old from Pakistan who was among 1,500 people camping out at Piraeus port in Athens, said he planned to work in Greece until he could afford to pay a smuggler to stow him on a truck, and then a ferry from the port of Patras to Italy , a major sea route since Roman times.
On Friday morning, an orderly queue formed for a sandwich breakfast prepared by soldiers.
“The border is closed, but I will try to find smuggler from Patras,” he said. “I want to go to Germany.” Every single migrant who spoke to the Telegraph had the same ambition.
Another potential route runs over the 50-mile Strait of Otranto from Albania to Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot. It was used by thousands of Albanian refugees following the collapse of communism, and is a key drugs channel for the mafia. The Italian coast guard is on high alert.
Over the morning in Piraeus, around 150 people boarded busses bound for Epirus on the Albanian border.
Peter Bouckaert, the emergency director at Human Rights Watch, said the lockdown across Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia had made the overland journey “virtually impossible”, adding that the Albania to Italy crossing “certainly would be one of the few alternative routes available to people.”
A glance at the data exposes why this could have disastrous consequences.
For all the dangers of the crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands, the other routes are worse.
Following the shift to the island route last year, fatalities fell from a peak of 1,244 in April 2015 to 53 in February, according to figures from the Swiss-based International Organisation for Migration.
One migrant in 380 drowns on the Aegean route, where the sea is just a few miles wide in places. The death toll – 354 people, including many children, this year– is appalling yet apparently endurable for those fleeing the slaughter of Syria.
For trips to Italy, the risk is four times greater – 97 this year, or one for every 95 successful crossings. Some 800 people drowned in a single shipwreck off Lampedusa last April.
“We could have a surge in longer, more dangerous routes,” said Mr Bouckaert. “Certainly in 2015, even though the Libya route became much less popular, it still accounted for the majority of casualties.”
Other migrants told the Telegraph they hoped to find smugglers to slip them overland through the Macedonia border, which would risk a repeat of the tragedy of last August, when 71 migrants were found suffocated in a food lorry on an Austrian motorway.
In Piraeus, migrants weighed up taxi rides to Kavala, a port city close to the Bulgarian border, which has been fortified with vast barbed-wire fences.
David Cameron last week gave Bulgaria 40 Land Rovers to patrol the border, an act of generosity which swiftly followed Prime Minister Borissov falling behind Britain’s position on its “Brexit” negotiations.
Alternatively, officials are concerned that migrants may attempt to cross the Black Sea from Turkey to Ukraine, before trekking through Poland to Germany.
Something else has changed. Some 38 per cent of migrants this year are children, and 22 per cent women, as families attempt to follow menfolk who made the trip last summer. Another baby was born in the clinic at Piraeus’s Gate E1 on Thursday, the fifth of his family.
Another mother, Fareeda Abdulhana, 40, who arrived in Lesbos after a terrifying boat ride on Friday with her son, Mohammad, 10, said she hoped to join her husband who was already in Sweden. She was a nurse in Aleppo, and fled when her parents were killed in bombing raids.
She was determined to wait until the borders, at some point, reopen. “In Bulgaria, police beat refugees. And in Albania there’s mafia,” she said. “Of course, I am afraid.”
Bahar Salah, 42, from Latakia in Syria, was hoping to join her husband in Germany.
“We hear that the road is closed,” she said. “Maybe we borrow more money and find someone to take us through the border. Maybe, maybe.”
[Source:- The Telegraph]