Idomeni / AFP
Hundreds of Greek police on Tuesday began clearing the squalid Idomeni camp, a migrant flashpoint on the Macedonia border where thousands of people have been camped out for more than three months.
The overcrowded camp packed with desperate refugees and migrants has become a potent symbol of the human suffering and chaos as Europe struggles to cope with its worst migrant crisis since World War II.
In an operation which began shortly after sunrise, hundreds of Greek police began evacuating the sprawling camp which is currently home to 8,400 refugees and migrants, among them many families with children, an AFP correspondent said.
At its height, there were more than 12,000 people crammed into the site, many of them fleeing war, persecution and poverty in the Middle East and Asia, with the camp exploding in size since Balkan states began closing their borders in mid February in a bid to stem the human tide seeking passage to northern Europe.
A helicopter hovered overhead as the operation got under way, with police sources saying at least 700 officers were involved in the evacuation which aims to clear the camp and take the people to reception centres and camps dotted around the country.
The move comes after a brutal winter of freezing rain and mud which saw many people trying to force their way across the border, sometimes resulting in a violent standoff with the Macedonian police.
But officials said Tuesday’s operation was proceeding calmly in the flashpoint camp, which has often been the scene of angry confrontations with the security forces.
“The operation began on Tuesday around 0400 GMT and is taking place slowly and in a calm atmosphere. There has not been any need to use force,” Yiorgos Kyritsis, the government’s migration spokesman, said.
A 10-day process
On Monday, Kyritsis said the operation to clear all 8,400 people living there would take at least 10 days.
Officials have said 6,000 spots are available at reception centres, and that most of the migrants are to be moved to camps at former industrial facilities near Greece’s second city Thessaloniki, which lies about 80 kilometres to the south.
No force was used as officers, who started to arrive at the camp on Monday, urged people to leave their tents and board buses waiting nearby to transfer them to reception centres.
Four buses with around 400 people on board could be seen leaving the site early Tuesday, an AFP correspondent said.
Journalists were unable to enter the camp itself on Tuesday morning with police keeping them out of the site.