Thousands of migrants trapped on Macedonian border

Macedonian police said they started blocking the refugees on the 50-km frontier "for the security of citizens who live in the border areas and for better treatment of the migrants."

Updated - March 29, 2016 04:50 pm IST

Published - August 22, 2015 02:44 pm IST - Gevgelija

Thousands of rain-soaked migrants, including many women and children, remained trapped in a no man’s land between Greece and Macedonia as Macedonian police continued to block the frontier on Saturday, preventing them from heading north to the European Union.

Overnight, police allowed only small groups of families with children to cross the border by walking on railway tracks to a station in the Macedonian town of Gevgelija, where most take trains to the border with Serbia before heading further north toward EU-member Hungary.

Those who could not cross spent the rainy and chilly night in the open with little food and water. They massed close to a razor wire separating them from machine-gun toting Macedonian policemen. Some raised their babies above their heads to try to persuade the policemen to let them through.

“These men are heartless,” said Yousef, a Syrian refugee who gave only his first name, as he held a little wide-eyed girl with curly hair in his arms and pointed toward the policemen. “They don’t care about our tragedy.”

Police fired stun grenades and clashed with the migrants who tried to rush over the border on Friday, a day after Macedonia’s government declared a state of emergency on the frontier to stop the human tide. At least 10 people were injured in the melee.

Both Greece and Macedonia have seen an unprecedented wave of migrants this year, most fleeing wars in Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq. More than 160,000 have arrived so far in Greece, mostly crossing in inflatable dinghies from the nearby Turkish coast an influx that has overwhelmed Greek authorities and the country’s small Aegean islands. Some 45,000 crossed through Macedonia over the past two months.

Few, if any, of the migrants want to remain in Greece, which is in the grip of a financial crisis. Most head straight to the country’s northern border with Macedonia, where they cram onto trains and head north through Serbia and Hungary on their way to the more prosperous EU countries such as Germany, the Netherlands or Sweden.

Last week, there were chaotic scenes at the Gevgelija train station involving hundreds of migrants trying to board the trains.

On Saturday, Rama Kabul from Syria walked the railway track in the opposite direction from the station pleading with two Macedonian policemen pushing her back with riot shields to let her brother who remained trapped behind the razor fence on the border join her.

“They took me out and left him there,” Kabul said with tears in her eyes. “I just want to talk to him.”

Macedonian police said they started blocking the refugees on the 50-km frontier “for the security of citizens who live in the border areas and for better treatment of the migrants.”

The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, said in a statement that it is “particularly worried about the thousands of vulnerable refugees and migrants, especially women and children, now massed on the Greek side of the border amid deteriorating conditions.”

Until now, the border has been porous, with only a few patrols on each side. Sealing it disrupts the Balkan corridor for migrants who start in Turkey, take boats to Greece or walk to Bulgaria, then make their way through Macedonia and Serbia before heading farther north.

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