Ali Baba and the 300 hostages: the kidnappers who prey on desperate migrants in Europe’s border badlands

In the ‘Wild West’ between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia, being beaten up and robbed is far from the worst that can happen

Ramita Navai 11 July 2015

Migrants warm up beside a campfire on the Macedonian-Greek border (Photo Robert Atanasovski/Getty)

Migrants warm up beside a campfire on the Macedonian-Greek border (Photo Robert Atanasovski/Getty)

In the heat of the midday sun, the fields and woodlands between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia look idyllic: birds sing, the grass is smudged with wild poppies, all seems quiet. But this picture of pastoral peace is, I’m afraid, an illusion. This is Greece’s Wild West, a lawless and desperate place known as ‘The Jungle’, where people are beaten up every day.

‘It’s dangerous out there,’ says the fat Greek policeman standing with me, just north of the village of Idomeni. Then he waddles back to his car.

The predators in this jungle are Afghan people-smugglers, their prey the poor migrants who have struggled here from all over Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The steady crunch of gravel that carries through the air with the birdsong grows louder as we approach a railway line. From here, I can see a biblical vision of flight: a continual flood of refugees who have travelled to Greece by dinghy from Turkey and are now heading for the conifer forests that disappear into the hills that encircle us. Men and women carrying babies, pulling their children, spurred onwards by poverty and war, faces scorched by the sun. A group of backpacked Syrians pick their way along the tracks. ‘Goodbye Syria!’ cries a young man, flicking a peace sign. In the distance there are more; a long line of them grinding along a road.

I walk towards the woodland. The migrants are hidden from view in the shrub, but as the tall grass gives way to the trees, they become visible. Hundreds crouch in the vegetation. Most of them are bound for Germany or Austria. Some shelter in abandoned outhouses. The new arrivals are easy to spot, limping and shoeless, airing calloused feet swollen by days of walking. A woman exposes her toddler’s little body, blanketed in red welts from the midges and mosquitos that descend in their swarms at dusk — along with the snakes.

At a clearing ahead, a charity’s jeep pulls up, followed by a foreign TV crew. The camera rolls as medicine is distributed. And then I hear them, talking in Dari: the Afghan people smugglers.

Between dick jokes, they are discussing business: how many have you got? Who is going to cross tonight? These are the men the fat copper was afraid of, smugglers now posing as refugees in a queue for gauzes and pills. Migrants exploiting migrants: they are hard to spot at first. But soon you can pick them out from a distance — the swagger, the flamboyant hair, all undercuts and mohawks, the leather wristbands and the flashy trainers.

A Syrian man was shot in the head a few months ago when he resisted a robbery. Increasingly there are reports of rapes. A young Afghan jogs towards us gripping his head. A dribble of blood leaks from a gash on his cheekbone. His face is bruised black. He says the Macedonian police beat him as he emerged from the other side of the forest. If it’s not thieves, it is the police.

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