greece migrants idomeni.jpg
Photograph: EPA/YANNIS KOLESIDIS

Greek police said they were able to relocate more than 1,500 people from the makeshift refugee camp in Idomeni without having to use force on Tuesday, the first day of a major operation to clear the squalid site.

"It is running smoothly. The people are being moved to better camps," the spokesman for Greece's migration crisis management body, Giorgos Kyritsis, told state radio.

The evacuation of the camp, consisting of a facility set up by the UN refugee agency in September and a much larger section spread across fields, began at dawn and is set to last several days. The first day of the clearance will see officials work until dusk.

At least 25 buses left Idomeni, taking people to camps elsewhere in Greece, as a bulldozer removed tents and trash from the field, witnesses said. 

Greek authorities kept the media away. Police did release video shots from a helicopter showing the migrants as they moved toward their transportation, willingly led by police.

According to latest estimates, around 9,000 people lived in the camp under miserable conditions. Many had been there longer than three months, hoping in vain that they would eventually be allowed to continue their journey to wealthy EU countries further north.

According to Greek media reports, some 1,400 police were assigned to the task.

Meanwhile, about 3,000 refugees were rescued Tuesday by vessels in the Mediterranean, the Italian Coast Guard said. Vessels from the coast guard were involved along with the European EUNAVFOR MED operation and an aid group, conducting a combined 23 rescues of boats from North Africa bound for Italy.

On Monday and Tuesday alone, some 5,600 people were plucked from unsafe boats attempting to cross the Mediterranean.

Built at the peak of the migration crisis in 2015, the camp at Idomeni was originally intended as a place where 2,000 refugees could briefly stay during their wait to cross the border and continue their trip north through Macedonia and the Balkans en route to richer EU countries.

But, as Balkan countries began restricting the flow of migrants, the crowd swelled, reaching around 12,000 in March, when the border was totally shut.

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