Tempers flare as migrants stuck at Greek-Macedonian border
Idomeni, Greece — Macedonia sent special police reinforcements by helicopter Monday to its border with Greece, after repelling hundreds of frustrated Iraqi and Syrian refugees with tear gas and stun grenades when they tried to force their way across the border.
Thousands of desperate refugees have been stuck for days on the Greek side of the border, overflowing from a packed refugee camp at Idomeni into the surrounding fields as they waited for Macedonian authorities to let them continue their trek through the Balkans. Only a tiny trickle of people from specific countries have been allowed to cross every day.
Chanting “Open the border!” and “We want to go to Serbia!”, the protesting migrants broke down a gate at a nearby rail crossing Monday after pushing their way past Greek police.
Macedonian police repelled the protesters. Several women and children were nearly trampled in the melee and Macedonian authorities said one officer was injured.
Macedonian police opened the crossing to receive about 50 people just before midday Monday but closed it again after the clashes. A police spokeswoman said a train with 450 refugees left the Greek border early Monday and was heading for Serbia.
Macedonia has said it will only allow in as many people as Serbia accepts, and Serbia has been responding to refugee caps set by Austria further up the migrant trail into Western Europe. This has led to a huge bottleneck in Greece, where authorities say more than 22,000 people are stuck and more are arriving every day.
About 6,500 Syrian and Iraqi refugees are camped out around Idomeni, with another 500 moved to a hastily erected camp on a small concrete landing strip 13 miles away. Syrian refugee Nidal Jojack, 45, said she has been camped out with her family at Idomeni for three days and nights.
“Very many people were forced to sleep in the open, without tents, wrapped in blankets,” she said. “It was very cold. The borders are effectively closed, it’s a huge problem. To get food, we have to wait in very long queues.”
Jojack hopes to reach Germany, where her 18-year-old son has already arrived.
The Idomeni crossing is a key point on the mass migration route that has prompted a major Europe-wide crisis. More than a million people have entered the continent since January 2015 — most arriving in small smugglers’ boats from Turkey on Greece’s eastern Aegean Sea islands.
After first sending welcoming messages, European authorities are now struggling to handle the situation. Hungary has fenced off its borders, refusing to accept any migrants, and other eastern European countries say they will not take in anyone under an EU refugee-sharing deal.
In recent weeks Austria — at the north end of the Balkan corridor — has severely restricted the inflow of migrants, causing a domino effect through the Balkans. Many of those countries are now refusing to let Afghan refugees in, although U.N. authorities say no one has explained to them who made this decision or why.
Diplomatic tensions are rising too, with criticism mounting against Austria. Athens has threatened to block decisions at an upcoming EU-Turkey summit unless the bloc forces members to shoulder more of the refugee burden.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, meanwhile, issued another robust defense of her quest for a European solution to the migrant crisis. Merkel is resisting calls at home and elsewhere in Europe for limits on refugees like Austria.
“We can’t do this in such a way that we simply abandon Greece,” she said Sunday night on ARD television. “This is exactly what I fear: When one country defines its limit, another must suffer. That is not my Europe.”
At next Monday’s summit, EU leaders “will discuss how we can restore the (passport-free) Schengen system step by step with Greece,” Merkel said.
But Austria’s deputy chancellor, Reinhold Mitterlehner, said Monday the refugee restrictions “are necessary (and) we’re going to maintain them.”
Authorities say over 1,800 people a day have reached Greece’s islands from Turkey in February, slightly down from 2,175 a day in January before the latest border restrictions.
Accidents are frequent as dozens cram into unseaworthy boats provided for a high price by smuggling gangs. Ninety-six people have drowned in Greek waters alone so far this year, with another 34 missing at sea.
After long delays, Greek authorities have constructed a series of screening centers and transit camps for migrants. But the centers are now all overflowing, forcing hundreds of families to sleep outside in a central Athens square or at a passenger terminal in the port of Piraeus.
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