GEVGELIJA (Macedonia) • Hundreds of migrants have crossed unhindered from Greece into Macedonia after overwhelmed security forces appeared to abandon a bid to stem their flow through the Balkans to Western Europe following days of chaos and confrontation.
Riot police remained, but did little to slow the passage of a steady stream of migrants yesterday, many of them refugees from the Syrian war and other conflicts in the Middle East.
Macedonia had declared a state of emergency last Thursday and sealed its southern frontier to migrants pouring in at a rate of 2,000 a day en route to Serbia, then Hungary and the European Union's borderless Schengen zone.
That led to desperate scenes at the border, as men, women and children slept under open skies with little access to food or water.
Saying they would ration access, riot police used tear gas and stun grenades to drive back crowds, but were overwhelmed last Saturday by several thousand who tore through police lines or ran through nearby empty fields.
LONG ROAD TO A BETTER LIFE
I passed one step but it is a long road to my destination.
MR MOHANNAD ALBAYATI, 35, from Damascus, travelling with his wife, two children and three brothers
The state eventually laid on extra trains, and buses arrived from across the country to take the migrants swiftly north to Serbia and the next step of a long journey from the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
"I watched the news on TV and I was astonished," said Mr Abdullah Bilal, 41, from the devastated Syrian city of Aleppo. "I thought I would face the same when I arrived here. But it was very peaceful. The Macedonian police told us, 'Welcome to Macedonia; trains and buses are waiting for you'."
Mr Mohannad Albayati, 35, from Damascus, travelling with his wife, two children and three brothers, said: "I passed one step but it is a long road to my destination. With Allah's help, I will go to Germany."
The backlog created in Macedonia, which faces criticism from aid agencies for not expanding capacity to receive and process the migrants, reached Serbia overnight, straining the country's own ad hoc reception centres.
"Last night after midnight, the first group of 200 people crossed the border," said a Serbian government official who declined to be named. "So far, we have more than 5,000 new arrivals. This is the biggest number in one day so far. They are waiting in long lines as we process them."
Macedonia has accused neighbouring Greece, with which it has a tense relationship, of aiding the migrants' journey north at a pace the Balkan country says it cannot cope with.
Greece has begun chartering boats to take migrants from inundated Greek islands to the mainland, after a record 50,000 hit Greek shores by boat from Turkey last month alone.
The migrants are headed to countries like Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Sweden where they can apply for asylum.
Macedonia's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Nikola Poposki, last Saturday reiterated appeals aimed at the European Commission, asking for greater assistance and a more organised Europe-wide approach to dealing with the enormous influx of migrants.
"The support that we currently receive is symbolic, and most of the burden is on the Macedonian institutions," Mr Poposki said. "But we will do our best for the migrants that arrive to be registered and to be treated as humanely as possible."
A transit and reception centre is being built on the outskirts of the border town of Gevgelija to speed up the processing of migrants and provide better support to them, said Mr Ivan Frangov, the mayor of Gevgelija.
"It will ease up the whole situation not only for the migrants but for the local citizens as well."
REUTERS, NEW YORK TIMES