greece migrants camp.jpg
Photograph: EPA/NIKOS ARVANITIDIS

Thousands of migrants are stuck at a camp in Idomeni, Greece, waiting for their chance to cross into Macedonia. Their desperation is raw and exacerbated by worries they will miss the chance to continue to wealthier European countries.

 Wind lifts the stench of urine from the camp and it is still a half a kilometre away.

Hundreds and hundreds of lightweight tents line the road leading to the place where thousands of migrants are waiting in Idomeni, Greece. The tents are sold and passed down by people who clear the camp when their turn comes to pass through the single, narrow gate and step into Macedonia.

In the camp and around it there are perpetual queues. Migrants say they have to wait up to four hours to get free meals. There are also lines of people waiting not only for snacks, soup and French fries, but also medical attention or to charge their phones at banks of power outlets.

"In the morning it takes you 30 minutes to go to the WC," a Syrian in his 20s said. "This is really bad and is getting worse."

Officials estimate that 12,000 to 15,000 people needing urgent humanitarian assistance are in the area around Idomeni. They are waiting for permission to continue their journey to richer countries further north, but Macedonian authorities are letting through less than a few hundred a day.

The most jostling takes place around a large tent around 5 metres wide and 10 metres long, which serves as an antechamber to the only gate that the migrants may take and still hope to legitimately reach Western Europe.

Crowding the tent are hundreds of people with numbers. Many people have the same number; often a whole family will get one. As Wednesday drew to a close, people with number 63 were trickling through to the gate.

"We try to select children to let them pass first. They go with families," said a Greek policeman, assigned from Ioannina in the north-west.

But the selection, which includes people at the gate who point down the line and call up husbands, brothers and grandparents, incenses those in between, who are afraid that the day will pass and they will remain in Idomeni.

When the crowd's complaints grow physical, police in riot gear raise their shields and push back, screaming at the people to sit down. The cop from Ioannina yells at the people in the front of the crowd to sit down or the gate remains shut.

Those who finally get through the gate are surrounded by police from Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia and other countries and an interpreter, who asks a series of questions. Often somebody is returned.

An ageing couple enters, but is swiftly turned back – the man is a legitimate Iraqi refugee, but his wife is an Iranian with only provisional papers and cannot enter.

In the back, the crowd again becomes restless as somebody collapses by the fence and screams for urgent medical assistance are heard. The gate immediately slides shut again, drawing tears from a woman sitting next to it whose turn it was to pass through with her family.

All the while police officers scream at migrants trying to sneak in from the sides in an attempt to bypass hours of waiting in the overcrowded tent. Despite reports that the camp is closed to the media, cameramen, photographers and journalists are there to record the events.

As the sun sets behind the mountains in the west, the temperature begins to drop sharply, from close to 20 degrees Celsius to 10 and lower.

Dozens of campfires are lit in front of tents. Mercifully, the smell of smoke overwhelms the stench from the banks of mobile toilets.

Those without tents huddle around the fire, bracing for a night in the open – another one for many. Some people said that they arrived a week earlier; most have spent at least several nights at Idomeni.

Thousands of people are stuck there, but only hundreds pass each day.

"Anyway, this will be over after March 7," the policeman from Ioannina said. Why? "Because the EU and Turkey will agree to stop it," he said, referring to the upcoming conference on the migration crisis.

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