Macedonia closes border to Afghan migrants: Greek police

A group of Afghan refugees wait for permission to cross the border from Macedonia to Serbia near Tabanovce, Kumanovo, The Former Yugoslav Reublic of Macedonia, on Feb 20, 2016.
A group of Afghan refugees wait for permission to cross the border from Macedonia to Serbia near Tabanovce, Kumanovo, The Former Yugoslav Reublic of Macedonia, on Feb 20, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

GREECE (AFP) - Afghan migrants seeking to travel through the Balkans to northern Europe were barred from entering Macedonia on Sunday (Feb 21), Greek police on the border said.

"We were warned this morning that Macedonian authorities would no longer let Afghans pass," a Greek police official told AFP, adding that Macedonia justified its move by claiming that Serbia had made a similar decision.

The development came after Austria on Friday introduced a daily limit on asylum seekers entering and registering in the country, triggering EU fears of a domino effect along the so-called Balkan migrant route.

On Sunday, Afghans seeking to enter into Macedonia through the Idomeni border crossing were pushed back, while only Syrians and Iraqis were allowed through.

A Greek government source confirmed the development, adding that Athens had received no official notice of the change from the Macedonian government.

"Greece condemns any unilateral action" on the management of the migrant crisis, the source added.

According to the UN refugee agency's representative Alexander Voulgaris, some 200 Afghans were being prevented from continuing their onward journeys.

Since November, countries on the Balkan route have allowed only Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans to continue their journey up towards Germany, Sweden and other European nations where they plan to apply for asylum.

People from other countries, who were deemed economic migrants, have been pushed back, triggering human bottlenecks and leaving humanitarian organisations struggling to distribute aid.

Greek police now plan to stop Afghan migrants from travelling up to Idomeni from Athens - their first port of call after reaching the Greek islands from Turkey - "until the situation is clarified," the government source said.

"Iraqis and Syrians are crossing, but not us, why? Aren't we also human beings?" said Afghan migrant Sayed Wahab Sadat, a 26-year-old mechanic.

"I want to go to Germany to live and work in safety, where I come from my life is in danger," he said.

"We will stay here as long as it takes," said fellow Afghan Edriss, 30, adding that he too wanted to reach Germany.

On the Macedonian side of the border, Jasmin Rexhepi, who heads an NGO named LEGIS, said 700 Afghans were stuck "in the northern Tabanovci reception centre because Serbia did not allow them to cross the border".

"Macedonia started with this selection Sunday morning after seeing that Afghan migrants could not leave the country," Rexhepi told AFP by phone.

While Serbia's Immigration Minister Aleksandar Vulin denied there were any border closures, he implicitly admitted Afghans now faced a new obstacle by blaming neighbouring Slovenia and Austria.

"Everyone has right to move through our territory in accordance with the rules established by Austria and Slovenia. Serbia does not decide who and how they can go through its territory without consulting states behind us on the migrant route," Vulin said.

Austria on Friday introduced a daily cap on asylum seekers, prompting countries along the Balkan trail to also tighten their borders.

Austria's move triggered an angry reaction from the European Union, saying the "unilateral actions" were "incompatible" with EU law.

Big rifts have opened up in the EU as the continent grapples with its biggest migration crisis since World War II, which saw more than a million people land on Europe's shores in 2015 and shows no sign of abating.

Macedonian border guards meanwhile demanded to see the Syrians and Iraqis' identification documents and a pass issued by the Greek authorities at registration hotspots on the Aegean islands.

Some 15 Iraqi Kurds who did not have the documents were turned back.

Meanwhile at the Serbian border town of Sid, some 200 migrants on Sunday staged a sit-down protest on a road leading to the frontier after police stopped them from walking to the Croatian border a few kilometres (miles) away, state broadcaster RTS reported.

Another 58 migrants were driven from Sid to a reception centre in the town of Subotica overnight, RTS said, quoting unofficial sources as saying they were not allowed to enter Croatia despite claiming they were Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans.