KABUL/Idomeni - “It was God’s will,” says Mohammed Ashraf, a tear rolling down his weathered face as he looks at the lifeless bodies of five male relatives, brought back to Kabul after they drowned trying to reach Europe.

The coffins sit open in the courtyard of the family home in Kart-e-Seh, a middle-class neighbourhood in the Afghan capital, the bodies of four boys and one older man wrapped in black material but their faces exposed.

One coffin is notably smaller than the others. It belongs to Faiz, who was just nine months old when he drowned in the Aegean Sea last week along with nine other members of his family. “You can see that the bodies are being washed now,” says Ashraf, a cousin of the family, as half a dozen men tend to the corpses in an Islamic funeral rite.

One, seemingly at the end of his strength, murmurs a prayer. Another bites into his scarf to suppress a sob. Only men are allowed to participate in this ceremony for their male relatives. Two houses along, the women of the family are doing the same for the five women and girls who drowned on the same crossing between Turkey and Greece.

Of the members of the Skanderi family who attempted the voyage, only the father of the five children who drowned has survived. “He is in a hospital in Turkey,” Ashraf explains. “We are all from the same village, from the same neighbourhood. We grew up together,” he says as the tears begin to flow again.

The scene reveals the tragic human story behind statistics from the International Organization for Migration showing that between January and mid-February alone, 320 people died crossing the Aegean. More than 130,000 people have travelled to Greece via Turkey since the start of the year, according to the same group, most of them Afghans, Syrians and Iraqis fleeing conflict and a bleak economic climate.

Of those, 42,000 are stuck in Greece, a series of border closures in the Balkans blocking them from continuing further into Western Europe. “Life is very hard in Kabul.

That’s the reason why they left. I work in a hotel-restaurant and the money is too tight,” says Atiqullah, a cousin of the family who did not wish to give his full name.

Ashraf is less certain. “We all know that Afghanistan faces a lot of challenges. But they (the Skanderis) did not face huge problems. They lacked nothing. It was fate that pushed them to leave. It was God’s will.” An uncle of the family and General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Afghan first vice-president and former warlord, both contributed towards the cost of repatriating the bodies.

The Skanderis left Kabul a month ago and set out on the now notorious route to Europe via Iran and Turkey, before their boat sank on Friday last week. Like most of the thousands of Afghans who migrate to Europe, the family paid “thousands of dollars” to people smugglers, according to Qadir, a relative. “They took a mortgage to pay for their trip,” he says. Moreover, Greece aims to deal swiftly with the overflow at the Idomeni migrant camp on the Macedonian border where some 12,000 people are waiting to cross in miserable conditions, a minister said yesterday. Some 200 migrants protested against conditions at the camp yesterday, chanting “open the border” and sitting on a cross-border railway line, according to an AFP photographer at the scene. And a Syrian refugee began a hunger strike in response to the situation. “I hope the situation at Idomeni is resolved within a week without recourse to force,” Dimitris Vitsas, the minister charged with coordinating the refugee flow, told Mega TV. Conditions in the camp have worsened since four Balkan countries shut their borders this week, closing off the main route to wealthy northern Europe trodden by hundreds of thousands of migrants in the last year. The measures have left thousands — including many children — forced to camp out in increasing squalor amid Europe’s worst migration crisis since World War II.

Nazim Serhan, a 44-year-old Syrian, began a hunger strike yesterday to highlight migrants’ plight at the border. Serhan, who travelled to Europe along with his three children in the hope of joining his wife in Germany who is battling cancer, told journalists: “I want to see her, just for one day.”

Vitsas said Athens would try “to convince” refugees to accept a transfer to other reception centres across the country. He added that 400 had done just that on Friday, moving to centres in northern Greece.

Figures released by Greek authorities yesterday estimated some 12,000 people remained at Idomeni but thousands more are camped out in fields nearby waiting in vain for the border to reopen. Greece is currently hosting more than 42,000 migrants and refugees with around 7,700 on islands in the Aegean Sea.

Many more, most of them fleeing the Syrian conflict, are still undertaking perilous voyages to reach the islands from Turkey.

According to Vitsas, “50,000 spots” will be available in reception centres across Greece “by the end of next week”, some 10,000 more than currently. The closing of borders by neighbouring states has posed a huge headache to the government of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

This week, EU and Turkish leaders agreed a controversial plan that would see migrants sent back from Greece to Turkey, in exchange for the EU resettling Syrian refugees from Turkish camps in a “one for one” swap. The proposal quickly came under fire, with the UN’s top officials on refugees and human rights questioning whether expelling migrants en masse from Greece to Turkey would be legal. The plan is due to be finalised at a EU summit on March 17.