NEWS

Refugees scramble for way past EU’s closed Balkan door

refugees-scramble-for-way-past-eu-amp-8217-s-closed-balkan-door

Hundreds of desperate migrants were stopped by troops from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) on Monday after managing to cross the border from Greece, where thousands have been left stranded after Balkan states slammed Europe's migrant door shut.

The migrants, who had set off from an overcrowded Greek refugee camp several hours earlier, waded through a surging river as they found an alternative route north into FYROM, bypassing the closed regular border crossing.

About 20 journalists who had followed the migrants from the Idomeni migrant camp were taken to a police station in Gevgelija, just over the border in FYROM.

As thousands of refugees scramble to find ways past the Balkan blockade, three Afghans drowned in a rain-swollen river in FYROM, while the Greek coastguard was searching for eight migrants missing in the Aegean.

The Greek-FYROM border — and more specifically the mud-soaked Idomeni camp — has become the focal point of the crisis in recent weeks, as thousands of migrants fleeing war in Syria and Iraq were blocked from heading further north.

Over 14,000 people have been stranded at Idomeni in increasingly desperate conditions after the main route to western Europe through the Balkans — taken by over one million migrants since the start of 2015 — was effectively shut down last week.

On Monday some 1,000 migrants set off on foot in search of an alternative route into FYROM, marching from Idomeni to the village of Chamilo some two kilometres (over one mile) away, closer to the sealed frontier with FYROM.

The group was quickly surrounded by Greek police as, carrying all their belongings, they crossed hills and a river to reach the village, an AFP reporter said.

But twice they managed to get round Greek police, the first time because there were too many of them, the second time because police vehicles could not follow the migrants into the river.

But they were later stopped by FYROM troops and the journalists travelling with them taken to a police station.

On Twitter a group using the hashtag #Marchofhope posted photos of people wading through water, with children on parents' shoulders.

Gevgelija is just over the Konska River which runs parallel to the Greek-FYROM border.

Babar Baloch, spokesman for the UN refugee agency, has described the Idomeni camp as "human misery at its peak".

British volunteer Matthew Sheppard said some of the migrants were getting desperate.

"We all know that the only real solution is for war to stop, to cut off the head of the snake. Here we are only doing damage control … We are just trying to put out a fire."

Earlier Monday, three Afghan migrants, including a pregnant woman, were found drowned in a river swelled by heavy rain as they tried to cross into FYROM from Greece, the FYROM interior ministry said.

Another 19 Afghans who tried to cross with them were taken to a nearby reception centre and four, who were injured, were taken to hospital, said ministry spokeswoman Natalija Spirova Kordic.

The deaths came after several days of heavy rain in the border area which has led officials to instigate anti-flooding measures.

Separately eight migrants were reported missing in the Aegean Sea after their boat sank in rough weather, triggering a rescue operation backed by a helicopter off the Greek holiday island of Kos, the coastguard said.

They are the first to go missing in Greek waters for several weeks, as the coastguard and EU border agency Frontex have begun picking up as many migrants as possible in the Aegean in a bid to reduce the number of deadly accidents.

Some 135,000 people have arrived in Greece from Turkey in flimsy boats since the beginning of January, according to the International Organization for Migration, with 418 perishing on the dangerous crossing.

Wintry weather and the Balkan border closures have failed to deter people from heading to Europe in search of new lives, with 1,700 landing on Greek islands in the last 24 hours.

[AFP]