Migrants hit roadblock at Greek border in north

A refugee camp near Idomeni village. More than 13,000 migrants are stalled at the Greek- Macedonia border.
A refugee camp near Idomeni village. More than 13,000 migrants are stalled at the Greek- Macedonia border.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

BELGRADE • Thousands of refugees piled up at the border between Greece and Macedonia, unable to continue northwards as regional authorities tightened controls before European Union leaders finalise an agreement to stem the flow of migrants.

More than 13,000 people, mostly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, were stalled at Greece's northern border, while hundreds more a day continued to arrive to a rain-soaked, muddy camp near the Idomeni crossing between Greece and Macedonia, once part of Yugoslavia, said Mr Babar Baloch, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), yesterday.

About 5,000 of them are children and many are sick after spending days in the open, he said.

"The situation is quite desperate. There's been no movement over the last two days" in the direction of EU states to the north, Mr Baloch said, a day after the Geneva-based UN refugee agency said it was concerned about a "blanket return" of refugees, contrary to international law.

EU leaders are working out final details of an agreement with Turkey before a summit on March 17-18, prompting Balkan governments to take extra steps to halt the flood of refugees crossing borders since last year to flee civil war, economic deprivation and terrorism.

Slovenia announced that it would start demanding valid passports and visas from midnight for all people seeking to cross into the passport-free Schengen area, as the western Balkan route from Greece to northern Europe was effectively closed to migrants.

Serbia's Interior Ministry also said it would increase border controls with Bulgaria and Macedonia since Serbia cannot become "a collection centre for refugees".

Macedonian police said 430 remained stranded on the Macedonia-Serbia crossing, illustrating the lack of coordination between individual states.

The Macedonian authorities halted all entry for migrants yesterday.

Almost 36,000 refugees were stranded in Greece, according to government data e-mailed yesterday morning. The number of people trapped in the country already exceeds the total capacity of hosting facilities, which is for 28,450 refugees, according to Greece's government.

More than 130,000 migrants and refugees have crossed to Greek islands from Turkey this year, according to the UNHCR, more than a tenfold increase from the same period last year. Hundreds have lost their lives trying to make the crossing.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 10, 2016, with the headline 'Migrants hit roadblock at Greek border in north'. Print Edition | Subscribe