Macedonia has closed its border with Greece to migrants, police in Skopje said yesterday (20 January), blocking the path of hundreds trying to reach northern Europe.
“The border is closed,” a senior Macedonian police official told AFP, while a police spokesman in northern Greece said it had been closed since Tuesday evening, leaving about 600 migrants stranded at the frontier.
There were contradictory reasons for the move, which the Macedonian official said was “temporary,” along the so-called Balkans route that migrants follow in a bid to reach European Union territory.
Since November, Macedonia has been filtering migrants before allowing them to cross from Greece to its territory. It granted passage onwards towards western Europe only to those fleeing conflict in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, who are seen as genuine asylum seekers rather than “economic migrants”.
The Skopje police official said the move stemmed from problems with Slovenian trains that had disrupted the flow of migrants, but the Slovenian rail company Slovenske Zeleznice (SZ) insisted they were running as normal.
“Macedonia temporarily closed the border upon the request received from Slovenia. The reason is a defect on the railroad (in Slovenia) and migrants trying to enter Macedonia could not continue their journey,” the official said.
However, while the SZ website reported Wednesday that technical problems had disrupted traffic at the crossing with Croatia and trains were being replaced temporarily with buses, an SZ spokesman told Slovenian news agency STA that migrants “have been travelling undisturbed so far”.
Both Serbia and Croatia meanwhile announced that they would only allow migrants to pass through if they were specifically seeking asylum in Austria or Germany.
The moves come after Austria last week signalled that it would follow neighbouring Germany’s lead and begin turning back any new arrivals seeking to claim asylum in Scandinavia after Sweden and Denmark tightened their borders.
The Serbian minister for migrant issues, Aleksandar Vulin, said in a statement that from Wednesday, migrants “will not be able to continue with their journey unless they express intention to seek asylum on the territory of Austria and Germany”.
Croatian Interior Minister Ranko Ostojic said his country was following suit, telling HINA news agency that all migrants will be asked whether they intended to seek asylum in Germany or Austria before being allowed to pass through.
In the Presevo reception camp in southern Serbia, an AFP photographer said the temperature dropped to minus 15 degrees Celsius on Wednesday morning. He said fewer migrants were at the camp than on previous days — apparently due to the hold-up at the Greece-Macedonia border.
Leading children’s charities had warned Tuesday that young refugees were at serious risk from the bitterly cold Balkan weather, as figures showed 31,000 migrants had arrived in Greece already this year.
UNICEF, the UN Children’s Fund, released a warning that children arriving in southeast Europe were “physically exhausted, scared, distressed and often in need of medical assistance”.
Mirjana Milenkovski, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR in Serbia, said Wednesday that they had seen an increasing number of people with flu or respiratory infections, but the migrants and refugees were being provided with better clothing, medical care and other assistance where needed.
In the meantime it became official that Austria would cap the number of people allowed to claim asylum this year, and that it would send these people back, or deport them back to the neighbouring countries through which they came.
Most of the migrants arriving to Greece from Turkey follow the route via Macedonia to Serbia and further West. Recently it was reported that from Greece, some migrants also took the Bulgarian route. Bulgaria is a EU member but not yet a member of Schengen.