Refugees seek warmth in a camp in Idomeni at the border of Greece and Macedonia
James Nachtwey for TIME
March 24, 2016 6:47 AM EDT

Around midnight on March 13, a young Syrian man named Abdo stepped into Tent No. 1 of the refugee camp of Idomeni, in northern Greece, and asked the men inside to gather around. Scores of asylum seekers had been living in that tent for about three weeks, mostly packed into tight rows of bunk beds, some sleeping on the wooden floor. The rain had been pouring down for days. Most of the camp’s 12,000 inhabitants–nearly all of them Syrians, Iraqis or Afghans–had been huddling in their shelters atop the mud. Inside the tent, the air was musty with the smell of bodies and wet blankets as Abdo arrived to make his pitch.

According to several of the migrants who listened to him in the darkness, his words were painful to hear. Abdo said there was practically no chance they would be allowed to cross the border and continue into Western Europe, the path that more than a million asylum seekers had used to reach Germany last year, going from Turkey to Greece and up through the Balkans. From Macedonia and Serbia to Hungary and Austria, the countries along their way had closed their borders to transiting migrants. Worse, the E.U. was close to clinching a deal with Turkey that could leave them stranded in Greece.

Most of the migrants had heard rumors of the deal being negotiated in Brussels. They didn’t know the diplomatic players involved, or the internal politics that drove European leaders–including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees last year–to make a deal with Turkey, a country with an ever-worsening record of human-rights abuses. But it wasn’t hard for the people at Idomeni to realize the consequences for refugees like themselves.

Greece, their gateway into the European Union, will become a virtual penal colony for asylum seekers under the terms of the deal, which E.U. leaders finalized on March 18. In Turkey, more than 2 million Syrian refugees will remain stuck with little access to decent jobs or education. And in the process, many of the E.U.’s founding principles–such as the free movement of people, the offer of sanctuary to the persecuted, and the commitment to compromise and consensus among the E.U.’s 28 member states–will have to be suspended. “The Brussels deal doesn’t solve the problem with refugees,” says Ioannidis Eleftherios, the mayor of the northern Greek town of Kozani, who has aided the construction of shelters in the area. “It just allows some countries to shut their doors and leave the problem for their neighbors. Its basic idea is, Not in my backyard.”

The Idomeni camp is a visible symbol of Europe’s failure to cope with the migrant crisis. Since it was created around some railway tracks last summer, conditions have grown increasingly unlivable, with shortages of food, toilets and health care, as well as beds. The camp’s inhabitants cook their meals over bonfires of plastic and other trash. “There is no one in charge, no authority,” says Emilios Dounias, the local chief of logistics for the charity Doctors Without Borders, which has built and maintained most of the camp’s facilities over the past year. “It’s a place outside the law,” he says, “in no-man’s-land.”

And now, in the aftermath of an ISIS-claimed terrorist attack that killed more than 30 people on March 22 in Brussels–the heart of Europe–an even more uncertain fate awaits the thousands of refugees in Idomeni and the millions more desperate to reach Europe. Right-wing, anti-immigration parties throughout Europe quickly capitalized, blaming the attacks on lax borders. The terrorism in Brussels, says Iason Athanasiadis, a Greek political analyst and expert on the Middle East, “will likely intensify the trend of further fortressing Western societies.”

Now both the refugees and the Greeks, on the edge of Europe, feel abandoned. “It’s like the phantom of the dark continent of Europe, the one that existed between the wars of the 20th century and during the Cold War, is awakening again,” says Nikos Xydakis, the Alternate Foreign Minister for European Affairs, who was Greece’s delegate to the refugee negotiations. Decades of diplomacy have gone into opening most of the E.U.’s internal borders, forming a free-travel area of 26 countries known as the Schengen zone, after the town in which the agreement was signed. Under pressure from both migrants and terrorism, “now the walls are back,” Xydakis says. “History is being forgotten.”

It was the history of World War II that inspired the creation of the E.U. some 60 years ago. Tens of millions of Europeans were forced to flee their homes as that war raged across the Continent, and the obstructions they faced in making their escape–the military checkpoints, the fences, the soldiers turning them away–are what led in 1951 to the signing of the Refugee Convention, one of the founding treaties of international law. Its core guarantee gives all human beings the right to cross any border in search of protection from war. When the E.U. drafted its own charter of fundamental rights, it made sure to strengthen this guarantee by prohibiting the mass expulsion of asylum seekers, especially to places where they would be subject to “inhuman or degrading treatment.”

But in the past few months, the E.U. has found it difficult to square these commitments with its effort to stop the unprecedented flow of migrants into Europe. Under the terms of the Brussels agreement, which took effect on March 20, all asylum seekers who reach the Greek islands will be sent back to the Turkish shores from which their boats set out. Nations to the north of Greece will keep their borders closed to asylum seekers, guarding them with a system of checkpoints and razor-wire fences. Passport-free travel in much of the Schengen zone will remain suspended at least until the end of this year–a policy unlikely to change in the aftermath of the Brussels terrorist attack.

The Brussels agreement does provide a legal pathway for refugees to reach Europe. For every Syrian sent back to Turkey from Greece, another Syrian will be able to travel directly to the E.U. from Turkey under what is meant to be an orderly relocation program. At least in theory, this program should reduce the loss of life in the waters between Turkey and Greece, where hundreds have already drowned so far this year while trying to cross in rubber boats. But the program will cap these legal relocations at 72,000 people, less than 3% of the 2.7 million Syrians now living in Turkey.

The deal would also penalize those migrants who still try to reach Greece by boat, usually with the help of smugglers. Not only would they be shipped back to Turkey, but their requests for legal transfer to the E.U. would be sent to the bottom of the pile of applicants. If implemented, such mass expulsions from the Greek islands would be a “flagrant breach of E.U. and international law,” wrote Steve Peers, a professor of E.U. and human-rights law at the University of Essex, in an analysis of the agreement. “To be frank, anyone with a legal qualification who signed off on this [provision] should hang their head in shame.”

Legalities only matter so much when emotions are running high. As explosions tore through the Brussels subway system and the departures hall of the city’s airport on the morning of March 22, images of the carnage spread rapidly through the camp at Idomeni. Ammar Al Saker, a 21-year-old refugee from Damascus, saw the news on the screen of his Sony Ericsson mobile phone while sitting in his tent in the center of the camp. He started sending messages about it to his friends. “God knows what will happen tomorrow,” he typed in one text, even as another took shape in his head: “For us it will get worse.”

The brussels agreement depends on the idea that migrants will trust the E.U. to fairly and promptly process their asylum applications, but the reaction in the Idomeni camp that night of March 13 indicates how unlikely that will be. Back in the tent, Abdo unfolded a piece of paper and told the crowd that they had only one choice. The migrants would have to form a massive column and make a long and treacherous hike through Europe, defying the E.U.’s laws and breaching borders on their way to Germany. “We will need to make one group of thousands of people, and police won’t be able to stop us and send us back,” read an Arabic-language leaflet Abdo showed to the other migrants. It included a detailed map, depicting a path through rough and mountainous terrain to a patch of Greece’s border with Macedonia where there was no fence to block their way.

Thus began one of the most desperate and reckless episodes of Europe’s refugee crisis, one that provides a warning of what’s to come as migrants seek new ways to break through the blockade written into the Brussels agreement. On the morning of March 14, about a thousand of them agreed to follow Abdo on the dangerous trek, packed up their possessions and set out toward the Greece-Macedonia border. With a can of energy drink in his hand and a loaded rucksack on his back, Abdo led their column into the hills. He wouldn’t tell me his full name, fearing that the adventure could get him arrested. But the 20-year-old did reveal that he is a native of Raqqa, the Syrian city that is now ISIS’s capital. “Our group is walking all the way to Germany,” he told me. “We are tired of waiting for these stupid decisions from Europe. Each time we protest in the camp, nobody listens to us. So we will move the borders ourselves.”

Behind him, along a dirt track leading through the hills, a haggard but lively tribe had taken shape. Several men in wheelchairs–one of them missing both legs below the knee, another too old and infirm to walk–were being pulled and carried through ankle-deep puddles. Young women held swaddled infants in their arms, and older ones balanced huge pieces of luggage on their heads. Sporadically, clusters of people broke into Arabic songs or chanted in unison the word “Germany”–their intended destination.

It wasn’t long before the refugees encountered the first police barricade. Greek border guards, following along in trucks, had kept watch on the migrants’ progress through the hills, and when the column reached a paved road, troops in riot gear lined up to block the marchers’ way. At the front, Abdo yelled for the throng to come close and push against the police officers, one of whom held a submachine gun in his arms. Undeterred, the dense crowd of asylum seekers began chanting again: “Greece! Greece!”–and within a minute or so the police stood aside. “Our orders are no violence,” said their commander, the head of the riot squad in the Greek municipality of Kilkis, who declined to give his name. “That’s what Athens says. So what can we do?”

Soon the terrain again grew rugged, winding through muddy fields and forests until the migrants reached their primary obstacle, a swift and murky river. On the flyers that many of them had seen before setting out, this river was marked on the map, but a note in Arabic declared that it “has no water.”

That was only one among the leaflet’s many falsehoods. In order to rally as many migrants as possible to take part in the march, the organizers, most of them Syrians, asserted that the road to Macedonia from the camp would be 3 miles (5 km) long. In reality, the walk was closer to 10 miles (16 km), a distance to be covered by women and children, the elderly and the disabled. They also suggested that once the migrants had made it illegally across the border into Eastern Europe, Germany would welcome them with open arms. “Germany is still accepting all refugees,” read the Arabic text of their flyers.

That claim was even further from the truth. In recent months, Germany has also moved to limit the inflow of migrants. Last year’s arrival of more than a million asylum seekers put extreme pressure on Merkel and her political party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), but they held true to what was dubbed Willkommenskultur–a policy of openness and tolerance toward refugees. Then the political winds turned against them. During regional elections held on March 13, the CDU’s far-right rival, the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany, made substantial gains, becoming a major player in German politics–even though its leadership has called for the police, as a last resort, to shoot migrants who attempt to enter the country illegally.

Since that shift in the national mood–a wave of xenophobia that peaked after migrants committed assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve–Merkel has had to change tack. In the past weeks, she has thrown her support behind the E.U. deal. “I have no illusions,” she said the day after the deal was struck. “There are big legal challenges that we must now overcome.” But with all 28 E.U. countries signing off on its provisions, the agreement had achieved what Merkel called “irreversible momentum.”

Back in northern Greece, the march of migrants had achieved a momentum of its own, as the crowd approached the river. Gathering along its bank, they took off their shoes, rolled up their pants and set out to ford the river, the water reaching to the thigh for most of them. Amal Mesaid, a refugee from the city of Dara’a, where the Syrian civil war began five years ago, handed her three young children–ages 4, 6 and 7–down to the human chain that the marchers had formed through the river. “I’m sorry for this,” Mesaid told me after walking across, her eyes wet. “We just want to get through and leave all of this behind. We have no other choice.”

The migrants continued marching, their feet sinking to the ankles in the lush green fields. About four hours into their journey, as the sun dipped behind Mount Olympus in the southwest, they came to a high fence topped with razor wire. This was the border with Macedonia. The fence stretched into the hills, and the migrants stopped to rest alongside it–changing diapers and breast-feeding children–before their march turned slightly southward, away from the border, into a narrow and winding path through rocky slopes and bushes.

Without warning, a few soldiers carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles appeared at the bottom of a hill. This was the Macedonian military, which had already deployed to await the arrival of the refugees. The border between Greece and Macedonia in this rural area is not marked–that much, at least, the flyers had predicted correctly–so the migrants had no idea they had entered Macedonia until they saw the sunburst flag of the country on the soldiers’ uniforms.

At a fork in the road, the troops began separating people in the crowd who appeared European–mostly journalists, activists and volunteers–from those who looked like refugees. It was an inexact process, one that seemed mostly based on skin color. Several reporters were herded to the left and made to sit in the mud for hours, along with hundreds of refugees, while at least one refugee from Syria was told to turn right, into a field where the military detained the people with lighter skin.

As night fell, about 70 of the journalists and charity workers who had been following the march, including me, were crammed into vans and driven to a police station in Gevgelija, a small border town in Macedonia that was swarming with military trucks and armored vehicles sent to stop the influx of migrants. But it wasn’t just Macedonians. Uniformed police officers from several other countries along the Balkan migration route–among them Czechs, Slovenians, Croatians and Austrians–paced around the police station as well, dressed in padded riot gear. Several of the officers repeatedly shoved and hit the reporters and volunteers. “You’re a criminal. Go away!” one shouted when I asked why foreign officers were working in Macedonia.

Their presence was less surprising than it might have seemed. Against the objections of the U.N. and the European Union, several E.U. states–including Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic–had independently called in February a summit of the countries known as the Visegrad group. These are the nations that sit along the migration route through Eastern Europe, and they have taken an increasingly hard line against the admission of refugees–particularly Muslims from the Middle East. At the Visegrad group’s summit–which also included non-E.U. states that sit along the route, like Macedonia and Serbia–their national chiefs of police decided to cooperate in restricting the inflow of migrants who try to pass through Greece into Europe.

But the Visegrad group gave their Greek counterparts no say in that decision, and since the migrants kept coming, a refugee bottleneck began forming in places like the Idomeni camp. “This is what pushed us into a trap,” says Dimitris Vitsas, the Greek defense-ministry official who is in charge of coordinating his country’s response to the refugee crisis. In practice, he says, the decisions of the Visegrad police chiefs “set fire to the base of the [European] Union.” Even if Merkel had wanted to continue welcoming asylum seekers, the Visegrad countries of Central and Eastern Europe would not have let them through. “There is no Europe like it was before,” said the Greek police officer who arrived in Gevgelija that night to demand the release of detained Greek journalists who had covered the migrant march.

The few dozen volunteers and reporters who walked with the migrants–including me–were held overnight at the police station, given a fine of about $280 and were banned from entering Macedonia for six months. But the refugees received much harsher treatment. After sitting for hours in the cold, with their clothes still drenched from the river, they were taken in buses in the middle of the night back to the Greece-Macedonia border, where Macedonian officers told them to walk south and not come back, according to a handful of migrants interviewed about this experience the next day. (Asked about the treatment of the migrants, a spokesman for the Macedonian army told reporters that they had been “blocked” and sent back to Greece “without any incident or use of force.”) Nearly all of them made their way to the Idomeni camp by morning, walking for miles along the highways and settling back into their squalid tents, and the limbo of Greece.

A couple of nights later, I ran into Abdo near Tent No. 1. His right arm was hanging limply in a sling and two of his fingers were broken–the work, he told me, of a Macedonian soldier’s boot. But he was no less determined to get across the border.

Behind him, hundreds of refugees were staging a raucous protest in the center of the camp, an almost nightly ritual in Idomeni. A Syrian man with a bongo drum had climbed onto the shoulders of one of his friends, and as he beat out the rhythm, the rest of the demonstrators chanted the same word, over and over: “Germany!”

Watching from the edge of the crowd, Abdo raised his voice so I could hear him. “With God’s will, we will break these borders down,” he told me. “Nothing will stop us. No rivers. No soldiers. We will find another way to march. Or else you will see our bodies on these borders.”

This appears in the April 04, 2016 issue of TIME.

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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