IDOMENI (Greece) • Hundreds of Greek police officers have begun clearing the overcrowded Idomeni camp, a migrant flashpoint on the Macedonia border where thousands have been living in squalid conditions for more than three months.
The 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.
More than 800 people were put on buses to newly opened camps in the vicinity of Greece's second-largest city Thessaloniki, about 80km to the south, in an operation that began shortly after sunrise yesterday, police said.
The authorities said priority would be given to unaccompanied minors and single-parent families. Many in the camp are fleeing war, persecution and poverty in the Middle East and Asia.
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 gradually take the people to reception centres and camps dotted around the country.
Their transfer 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 violent encounters with the Macedonian police.
Officials said yesterday's operation was proceeding smoothly in the flashpoint camp.
"There has not been any need to use force," Mr Yiorgos Kyritsis, the government's migration spokesman, said. He had said on Monday that the operation to clear all 8,400 people living there would take at least 10 days.
At its peak, there were more than 12,000 people crammed into Idomeni, a camp originally opened by aid groups last year to accommodate just 2,500 people in what was, at the time, a short procedure to cross the border.
But the camp exploded in size after Balkan states began closing their borders in mid-February to stem the human tide seeking passage to northern Europe.
Many of the camp's residents are women and children keen to be reunited with male relatives who have pushed ahead on their own - with the aid of smugglers - hoping to find a place of refuge in EU states more financially viable than debt-hit Greece.
There are more than 54,000 migrants stranded in Greece, according to government estimates.