IDOMENI/EVZONI, Greece (Reuters) - They packed up their belongings and began to walk, some heading for the fields, others to a gas station, all seeking to avoid state-run Greek migrant camps where they fear they will end up trapped.
For months they had been living in Idomeni, a sprawling expanse of tents on Greece’s northern border with Macedonia and a symbol of human misery until police and bulldozers began clearing it on Tuesday.
On Thursday, the camp stood empty. It had been home to more than 8,000 migrants and refugees in recent weeks, yet only about 2,800 of those have been relocated by bus to state-run facilities, police said.
Instead, scores of tents have sprung up at gas station in the town of Evzoni, some six 6 km (4 miles) away, and dozens more were being pitched in a grassy field nearby.
Diar, an 18-year-old Syrian, said he woke up on Thursday to Greek police asking him to get on a bus to an official camp, so he made his own way out of there instead.
“I’m looking for a smuggler,” he said. “Everyone here is trying to get a smuggler and move from here, by plane or by walking, or anything else.”
Greek officials have not released figures on how many people may have left on their own accord. On Thursday, the government hailed the end of the operation a success.
“The whole operation has terminated,” Public Order Minister Nikos Toskas told reporters in Idomeni. The individuals were taken to facilities with better conditions, without the use of force, he said.
At its peak, more than 12,000 people were stranded in Idomeni, at times scuffling for food and firewood and sleeping in tents weighed down by mud each time it rained. Despite borders remaining shut, they have refused to leave, hoping to still reach western Europe like a million others before them.
Aid groups say the new sites, including some in disused warehouses and industrial zones, are not fully functional. They have called on Greece, which is also grappling with its worst economic crisis in generations, to improve conditions there.
The government says there are still more than 54,000 migrants on Greek soil. Asylum requests have spiked in recent months, adding to the burden of an asylum service already criticised as slow and inefficient.
Progress has also lagged on a scheme to redistribute 160,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy to other EU states to alleviate pressure on the two frontline countries. Just over 1,100 people have been relocated so far.
“This is not just about survival. Sites must provide for refugees’ basic needs,” said Rowan Cody, northern Greece field coordinator for the International Rescue Committee aid group.
“Increasing desperation is already leading to spikes of violence and an increase in mental health issues. How much more can these people bear?” he asked.
One Syrian refugee who left Idomeni for the barren field in Evzoni with his wife and two daughters said he refused to go to an official camp as he had been told of overcrowding.
“There is no place for us and there is not enough food and aid and medicine. People are cramped on top of each other and, at the same time, there are same problems as the previous camp,” he said.
“I don’t want to go and get squeezed among people and in the end, we still don’t know what our fate will be.”
Writing by Karolina Tagaris; Editing by Tom Heneghan