Thousands of Afghans stranded in Greece, Austria calls Balkan mini-summit

Migrants rest next to buses as they wait to cross the Greek-Macedonian border near the village of Idomeni, Greece, 2 February. [Reuters]

Thousands of refugees were left stranded in Greece yesterday (22 February) after Macedonia abruptly closed it border to Afghans, creating a fresh bottleneck as European countries scramble to respond to the continent’s worst refugee crisis since World War II.

Overall, some 8,000 people were trapped on Greece’s northern frontier and at the port of Piraeus after Macedonia introduced the measure on Sunday in a bid to stem an unrelenting influx of migrants.

Desperate to get through, hundreds of Afghans staged a sit-down protest in an area of no-man’s land and occupied the railway line connecting the two countries, holding makeshift signs that read: “We can’t go back” and “Why racism?”

Dozens of Afghan children also carried signs with the words: “Help us cross border.”

Greece said it would provide emergency shelter for the blocked migrants while working to find a solution with non-European Union member Macedonia.

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.

Macedonia’s decision to stop letting Afghans through came just two days after Austria controversially introduced a daily limit on asylum applications.

Montenegro to close borders

Montenegro will have to close its borders to refugees and migrants to avoid being overwhelmed if other nearby countries do so, the country’s prime minister told Reuters yesterday.

Montenegro, a tiny ex-Yugoslav republic sandwiched between Serbia, Albania and the Adriatic Sea, is not on the main Balkan route, but fears that Macedonia may shut its border with Greece, possibly diverting many migrants into Albania and Montenegro.

NATO bid puts Montenegro government to the test

Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic survived a confidence vote in parliament yesterday (27 January) in the wake of an invitation to join NATO, but had to rely on the votes of an opposition party after his own coalition partner abandoned him.

“If the European countries dealing with the consequences of the migrant crisis opt to close their borders, what else is there for a country like Montenegro to do,” said Djukanovic, in
London for a conference of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

“Of course” Montenegro would have to shut its borders, he said, if Macedonia shut its frontier with Greece and further north countries such as Hungary and Austria tightened their own
border restrictions.

‘Die or go on’

“We cannot go back. We will either die here or go on,” said 20-year-old Afghan Mohamed Asif on the Greek side of the border.

“We have paid so much money to get this far. Germany said it would accept refugees, what has changed now?”

Giannis Mouzalas, Greece’s junior interior minister for migration, said Athens was racing to negotiate an end the deadlock.

Belgium asked Greece to ‘push immigrants back’

Greece’s Migration Minister, Yiannis Mouzalas, said on Thursday (28 January) that Belgium had asked him to go against the law, and “push migrants back in the sea”. EURACTIV Greece reports.

“We have begun diplomatic moves… we believe the problem will be resolved,” Mouzalas told parliamentary television.

In an interview with Vima radio he added that Athens was trying to exert pressure at the “European and bilateral level”, without giving further details.

However, another government source said it was unlikely the situation would be resolved on Monday.

“We do not expect a solution today,” the source told AFP, adding: “We will accommodate the Afghans whilst trying to prevent overcrowding at any of the facilities available.”

Officials said they would open a newly-completed relocation camp near Piraeus to handle the emergency.

The arrival last year of more than one million refugees and migrants in Europe, many fleeing war, poverty and persecution, has caused a chain reaction of border clampdowns, in a blow to the European Union’s border-free Schengen zone.

As the main gateway into the bloc, Greece has been struggling to cope with the inflow and fears new restrictions by other members will leave tens of thousands stranded on its territory.

Austrian move ‘unacceptable’

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière on Sunday (21 February) hit out at the asylum cap imposed by neighbouring Austria, which is now planning its own mini-summit with western Balkan leaders on Wednesday.

De Maizière told ARD public television that Vienna’s move to accept only 80 asylum seekers a day while waving through another 3,200 migrants, many of whom were headed for Germany, was “unacceptable”.

Austria introduces cap on refugees, will deport ‘surplus’

The Austrian government announced yesterday (20 January) that it would cap the number of people allowed to claim asylum this year, and that it would send excess refugees back, or deport them to the neighbouring countries through which they came.

De Maizière said he intended bringing up the issue at the next gathering of EU interior ministers in Brussels on Thursday.

Greece thought it had secured an open-borders pledge from fellow EU members at a summit in Brussels on Friday.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras had pushed for a commitment from member states to refrain from unilateral border closures until an EU summit on the crisis with Turkey being planned for early March.

The European Council said on Friday (19 February) that the bloc’s response – which also includes NATO assistance against people smugglers in the Aegean Sea – “will only bring results if all its elements are pursued jointly and if the institutions and the member states act together and in full coordination”.

  • 25 February: Austria holds mini-summit on migration with Balkan leaders.
  • 26 February: Meeting of the EU justice and home affairs ministers in Brussels.
  • 5 March: Mini-summit with Turkey in Brussels.
  • 17-18 March: EU summit.

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