Limbo in Greece: A Photo Essay

by ALKISTI ALEVROPOULOU-MALLI | University of Cambridge, PhD, Biochemistry
Alkisti worked in and photographed the Idomeni refugee settlement in northern Greece and refugee groups in Athens in 2016. She heard the stories of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and Kurdistan who are forced to wait there while trying to continue their journey into Macedonia, and she has been raising awareness through her photography. Recently, Alkisti hosted an exhibition in Darwin College called “Waiting for Home” and at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research during the Cambridge Festival of Ideas 2016 . Her portfolio can be accessed here. 
This photo essay contains photographs taken by Alkisti in Idomeni, Greece’s militarized camps, and Athens.


“Human rights don’t apply here.” Two children stand by a political poster near the main road leading into the camp at Idomeni. Posters with similar slogans could be found around the camp. Some are posted by activists and volunteers, others by the camp residents themselves.
A young child cheekily poses for the camera during Newroz (Kurdish New Year) celebrations in Idomeni camp. According to UNHCR figures, children make up approximately 40% of the refugees currently entering Europe.
Two men using a smart phone at one of several electrical stations in the military camp of Diavata, near Thessaloniki. Technology has played an incredibly important role for those traveling across Europe. WiFi enables contact with friends and family as well as access to important news updates, legal facts regarding asylum applications, and weather conditions for boat crossings. Smart phones are also indispensable connections to the past, with many storing photos and videos, tangible reminders of life before the war.
A boy looks angrily toward a Greek police officer during a protest outside the town of Polykastro, northern Greece. Following the closure of borders along the Balkans route, people became trapped in Greece. Lack of information and facilities has led to a constant sense of frustration and distrust, and tensions are running high.
Two young boys play in a large muddy puddle in the camp of Idomeni, in northern Greece. Parents are often preoccupied with daily chores and keeping track of the ever-changing political situation and legal procedures. The camp in Idomeni was only afforded extremely basic infrastructure as the government did not want to legitimise the make-shift camp. As a result, there is no school or adequate facility to occupy children during the day. The children are therefore often left to their own device to seek out ways to entertain themselves.
A young girl shows her drawing of her journey from war-torn Syria across the Aegean Sea to Greece and then finally to the camp of Idomeni at the closed border between Greece and Macedonia. It reads, “A journey from death to death, from death to a large prison.”
A row of tents at the Port of Piraeus, in Athens. At its peak, approximately 4500 people were living in the port, preferring to settle there rather than moving to the militarized camps springing up around the country. Conditions at the camps are often very poor, with some refugees returning voluntarily to the port after attempting to settle in the militarized camps.
A young boy sits with a group of men at the Port of Piraeus in Athens. Following the closure of the Balkan route and subsequent overcrowding on the Greek islands, many became stuck on the Greek mainland. With military camps being poorly managed and often far from shops and amenities, many chose to settle in the port. Volunteer teams worked around the clock to provide for basic needs as there were no services provided by official authorities.
The main food distribution line in Idomeni. A metallic cage-like structure was constructed, spanning around 50 metres, to enforce queueing in single file. Mobbing at distribution points is a constant risk, with frequent outbursts and scuffles breaking out as a result of frustration, desperation, and poor living conditions.
A girl walks across part of the camp in Idomeni in the rain. The harsh weather makes living conditions very difficult. Constant rain turned the whole camp into a large mud field, with thick slippery mud getting everywhere and making movement difficult. Gastro-pulmonary infections are wide spread and often lead to complications due to the lack of proper sanitation.
A group of siblings from Syria pose together in the Idomeni camp. They were very insistent on including their shiny sequin dress, clearly one of their favourite possessions.
An empty wheelchair sits outside a row of tents in Idomeni. Many of those staying in the camp bear physical signs of the violence and devastation from which they were fleeing. The awful living conditions makes life even more difficult, especially for those with mobility issues and severe physical trauma.
A group of children gathers together to eat breakfast outside their tents in Idomeni. Children are often left to their own device while parents go about their daily chores, which include laundry, food preparation, queuing for clothes and other non food items, and trying to make sense of the complex legal procedures for asylum applications.
A typical kitchen set-up, Idomeni style, being used here to heat up a carton of milk for breakfast. Despite there being sufficient food on offer at distribution points around the camp, many choose to cook for themselves. For some, it is a matter of preference to eat the kind of food they are used to. For others, it is out of necessity due to health issues such as diabetes and coeliac disease. Because the food distribution system requires all members of a family to be physically present in the queue, it is often inconvenient to collect food in this way.
Personal grooming is a very important part of camp life in Idomeni. Despite the difficult living conditions, pop-up barbers are a common sight around the camp, with those skilled as hairdressers using the opportunity to earn some money to get by.
A young boy holds up a cardboard placard reading “Open the borders!” during a peaceful protest in Idomeni. Protests calling for safe passage across Europe were an almost daily occurrence in the camp. People would often gather in the evenings along the train tracks by the main entrance to the camp, where there was a 24/7 group of protesters staging a roadblock by blocking the train tracks.
A small baby holds up a sign reading “We are going to Germany!” in her father’s arms during a peaceful protest. Such protests have become increasingly regular parts of camp life. By the end of February, people were frustrated by the closure of borders along the Balkan route which had resulted in ten to fifteen thousand people getting stuck at the camp in Idomeni. Hopes of an idealised destination, such as Germany, became mantras that people turned to as a source of resilience to survive the hardship.
A boy poses for a photo during Newroz (Kurdish New Year) celebrations in Idomeni in March, while the crowd behind him hold up their hands in peace signs. It was a small but intensely emotional gathering where the camp’s Kurdish population came together to celebrate their culture and remember the homes they left behind.
A man holds up his hands, clapping, while another carries a flaming torch during Newroz (Kurdish New Year) celebrations in Idomeni in March. Several hundred Kurdish refugees gathered for a day of festivities in celebration of their cultural heritage.
A group of young people perform traditional dances during Newroz (Kurdish New Year) celebrations in Idomeni in March. Celebrations lasted well into the night with much singing and dancing in a very intensely emotional atmosphere. Keeping the culture alive is one of the few links to home.
A mother and her young son pose for a photo in the military camp of Diavata, just outside Thessaloniki. The harsh living conditions in Idomeni caused many to move to the few military camps in the area at the time. Here, all facilities (medical, food, non-food items) are provided and managed by the military in collaboration with a few select NGOs (such as PRAKSIS and the Red Cross). Conditions may be better than in Idomeni, but only slightly. Accommodation still consists of canvas tents with gravel floors.
A young boy colours a drawing of a food basket at the children’s tent in the military camp of Diavata, near Thessaloniki. UNHCR staff manage an area for occupying children during the day while parents rest and go about daily tasks, such as laundry and attempting to navigate the complex legal system.
Y—, a 12-year-old boy from Iraq. His family is part of a Christian minority who had to flee persecution from Sunni Daesh (ISIS) forces. He is travelling with his parents and younger siblings, and they are trying to meet his mother’s sister in Germany. While sitting on a glass slope in the military camp of Diavata, he complains of a bad back. He says, “When my family was in Turkey, I was working for two years in a factory for clothes. I was cutting the fabric, every day for twelve hours to help my family. But the pay was so small! And I was sitting like this, bending, all of the time. And when I finished and went home, my back was hurting. It was really not good, and now my back still hurts.” Rent is high for refugees in Turkey, any work is rewarded at unacceptably low rates, causing many to send their children into manual labour in Turkey to help supplement their family’s income.
A young boy shouts “Open the borders!” from atop his brother’s shoulders during a roadblock protest near the town of Polykastro. Adults’ concerns, fears, and frustrations at the closed borders are so ubiquitous that it is common to find children getting involved. It is not unusual to see young children shouting slogans, such as “No water, no food! Open the border!” during hunger strikes, or throwing things at border guards.
A woman silently sobs at a roadblock protest near the town of Polykastro. Greek riot police had been trying to non-violently push people back to resume normal traffic. The sense of hopelessness and desperation is very strongly felt among those trapped in Greece after the borders were closed. The uncertainties of being stuck in limbo — unable to carry on their journeys but unable to return to a war-torn homeland — are emotionally exhausting and overwhelming.
Greek riot police try to restrict a group of refugees who had formed a roadblock near the town of Polykastro. Such roadblock protests have become increasingly common as a means of voicing frustration and requesting for safe passage across Europe. A similar protest blocking the train tracks in the camp of Idomeni lasted almost three months and severely affected freight trade passing through the Greek-Macedonian border.
A girl reaches for an orange handed to her by a refugee volunteer in the main food distribution queue in Idomeni. The main food distribution point is manned by the NGO PRAKSIS, with food mostly funded by the UNHCR. Depending on availability and the time of day, it is possible to receive anything from biscuits, jam sandwiches, ‘home-cooked’ food, fruits, and baby food. Some items are highly sought after and could lead to mobs, while others, such as spinach rice, do not go down well at all.
Two boys play/protest by the railway crossing point of the Greek-Macedonian border, while Macedonian guards look on across the fence. Shouting slogans they had heard adults use during protests before, throwing pebbles, and waving sticks around — the games of children often mimic their reality, re-enacting what is happening around them while they play.
All food and non-food items are distributed only through official channels as trying to do so independently can become dangerous and violent. Once, a group of men in a large Turkish truck came to the village of Idomeni, just outside the make-shift refugee camp. They began to distribute a variety of goods: biscuits, diapers, crisps, cigarettes, tissues, clothes, etc. Those receiving goods began to fight over them and soon a mob formed, overwhelming the truck. The men in the truck eventually had to drive off for their safety while throwing things off the back to the people who were running after it.
A man shouts angrily at a police line during a protest in the camp of Idomeni, Greece. Throughout March and April regular protests became more frequent as people became more frustrated at being trapped in limbo. They could neither carry on their journeys nor go anywhere else. Living conditions were awful, money was running out, and sanitation was a big problem.
A young woman holds up her hand in a peace sign during protests in the town of Polykastro, Greece. A group of people blocked the roads heading toward the Macedonian border to demand opening the border to let them pass.
A group of young men throw rocks over the Greek-Macedonian border at the border guards on the Macedonian side. Meanwhile, Greek riot police try to push people back from the border fence to prevent people from trying to break through the wires. After months of being held in existential limbo, frustrations were running high and people began to protest against their living conditions and the closed borders.
A man tries to smother a tear gas cannister during clashes between camp residents and the Macedonian border fences in Idomeni, Greece. People tried to break through the wire fences of the border, throwing rocks at the border guards on the other side. The response from Macedonia was to shoot tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets across the border.
A man runs at the Greek-Macedonian border with a tear gas cannister in his hand, ready to throw it back over the fence at the Macedonian border guards. A heavy-handed response from the Macedonian authorities saw rock-throwing met with tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper spray. Tensions are high after prolonged stay in Idomeni, Greece, with people becoming increasingly desperate to cross the borders and carry on their journey.
A man stands with rocks in his hands, pausing in front of a cloud of tear gas during clashes with Macedonian border guards in Idomeni, Greece.
Multiple tear gas canisters are fired over the border by Macedonian border forces in response to refugees throwing rocks at them. The heavy use of tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets has been widely criticised by the Greek authorities, the UNHCR, and NGOs on-site such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) as excessively violent reaction to ongoing protests. According to an official MSF report, over 300 people were treated with severe respiratory problems and physical injury from the use of projectiles to disperse the crowd.
A group of young men tears down one of the pillars holding up the border fence separating Greece and Macedonia during a day of clashes with border guards. After weeks of being stuck in limbo in Idomeni, many began to vent their frustrations and demand for the borders to be opened.
A Greek riot police unit approaches the Greek-Macedonian border in Idomeni during clashes. There was very heavy military and police presence in attempted push-backs to keep the border fences intact. While there were many injuries and much violence, it was mainly between the Macedonian guards and refugees, with the Greek authorities trying to form a buffer between the two.
A boy rests on the ground while Greek riot police approach. In mid-April 2016, a series of violent clashes broke out when refugees tried to break through the border and threw rocks over the fence at Macedonian guards. The Greek authorities responded by forming lines and trying to push people back from the border.
A Yazidi family from Iraq gathers to eat breakfast. The Yazidi community has faced widespread persecution for their religious beliefs, with Daesh (ISIS) describing them as ‘devil worshipers’ and executing them. For those staying in Idomeni, cultural differences and preconceptions from home continue to make life difficult and even dangerous. As a result, Yazidi refugees often camp together and keep to themselves for safety.
A man has turned his tent into a convenience store. After having to remain in Idomeni for weeks, people started to turn to their skills and entrepreneurial abilities to get by. Some travelled to the nearby towns to get supplies to sell at a profit. These included anything from fresh produce (meat, vegetables, yogurt) to cupboard items (rice, coffee, crisps, canned food) or other miscellaneous supplies (shoes, chargers, cigarettes).
A young boy plays with the door of a water station in Idomeni. Behind him, on the side of the container, is a map of Europe showing field sites for the anti-trafficking NGO, A21, who also provide water stations. The maps have been focal points of much debate and deliberation. Many are hoping to reach Germany, which has been coloured in in the map. However, many have also expressed disappointment as they thought it would be much closer and easier to reach the rest of Europe once in Greece.
Two women do their laundry on a sunny morning in Idomeni. Two to three designated water points can be found in the camp where people gather to wash their clothes and to go about their daily personal hygiene routines as best as possible given the conditions.
Children play with bubbles, distributed earlier by a group of volunteer clowns. The general atmosphere in Idomeni is very heavy with uncertainty and frustration. Seemingly endless hours of waiting causes a lot of tension. The innocence of children playing is cherished as a way to elevate the mood and remind people of happier times.
A woman washes her child in a tub on a sunny day in Idomeni. Following a particularly miserable winter, April came with high temperatures and a scorching sun. Recent lice and scabies outbreaks also meant that good personal hygiene is really important.
A boy looks over the shoulder of Greek riot police during a large protest in the border camp of Idomeni. Tensions had been mounting for several days and ultimately a large, but peaceful, protest was held with several hundred people in attendance.


Originally from Athens, Alkisti has been based in Cambridge for the past few years working part time on a PhD in Biochemistry. Over the past year she has been involved with a range of groups and NGOs providing aid at different locations in Greece and continues to have a close relationship with them. Alkisti is currently preparing to return for an extended stay in Lesvos.

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