Conditions worsen for refugees stranded at Balkan borders

Refugees at the Gevgelija border crossing, between Greece and Macedonia. [Reuters]

New border controls in the Western Balkans are leaving refugees stranded behind barbed wire as temperatures start to plunge, and aid agencies warned that the clampdown would lead to a rise in smuggling.

Countries along the Balkan route taken by hundreds of thousands of refugees seeking refuge in Western Europe last week began filtering the flow, granting passage only to those fleeing conflict in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The move has stranded a growing number of Iranians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and other nationalities from Asia and Africa.

A group of Iranians, blocked from entering Macedonia from Greece by barbed wire and rows of police, erected a banner on Sunday (22 November) announcing a hunger strike. Some blocked the railway line running between the two countries.

>>Read: Berlin ostracises CSU politician who linked Paris to refugee crisis

“We won’t go back to Iran,” one man had scrawled on cardboard. A light rain began to fall, while further north along the route snow announced the arrival of winter.

“We are people too,” said an Iranian man who gave his name as Ahmed. “We are not terrorists, just ordinary people searching for a better life. We crossed thousands of miles. For what? To be stuck here?”

One Iranian man, declaring a hunger strike, stripped to the waist, sewed his lips together with nylon and sat down in front of lines of Macedonian riot police.

Asked by Reuters where he wanted to go, the man, a 34-year-old electrical engineer named Hamid, said: “To any free country in the world. I cannot go back. I will be hanged.”

Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia say they took the step to begin filtering the flow after Slovenia, which is part of Europe’s Schengen zone of passport-free travel, said it would no longer admit what it called “economic migrants”.

Rights groups have questioned the policy, warning asylum should be granted on merit, not on the basis of nationality.

“To classify a whole nation as economic migrants is not a principle recognised in international law,” said Rados Djurovic, director of the Belgrade-based Asylum Protection Centre. “We risk violating human rights and asylum law,” he told Serbian state television.

The new measure coincides with rising concern over the security risk of the chaotic and often unchecked flow of humanity into Europe, in the aftermath of the 13 November attacks in Paris by Islamist militants in which 130 people died.

It has emerged that two suicide bombers involved in the attacks took the same trail, arriving by boat in Greece and then traveling north across the Balkans. Most of the attackers, however, were citizens of France or Belgium.

>>Read: EU counter-terrorism czar: Terrorists among asylum seekers? Unlikely

Aid agencies have warned that those denied passage and the right to seek asylum risk being left in limbo without sufficient aid against the winter.

On the Macedonian-Greek border, hundreds of people were stranded in dozens of tents behind barbed wire, as Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans were filtered through fences and granted passage.

Standing behind barbed wire, some had scrawled on cardboard, “Pakistani people want freedom” and “We are Bangladeshi, save our life”.

“We are not terrorists. We just go for a better life. Please let us go,” read another banner.

One man denied entry stripped to the waist and wrote on his chest, “Shoot us or save us.”

>>Read: Islamic State smuggling terrorists among the migrants? Unlikely, say experts

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies warned of the threat of plunging temperatures.

“There is urgent need to put in place additional reception capacity at the points of entry,” Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told a news briefing in Geneva.

The measures have led to concerns that refugees might change routes via Bulgaria, where “Wild West” conditions are even more precarious, IOM spokesman Joel Millman said. IOM regional director Gianluca Rocco predicted that smuggling will drastically increase, together with the number of fake Syrian travel documents on the black market.

More than 4,000 refugees and migrants have streamed into Europe each day in November, adding to the influx of 846,000 people - many of them Syrians fleeing war - who have crossed the Mediterranean this year, according to the UNHCR.
Most of the migrants arrive from Turkey to the Greek Aegean islands. From there, they follow the so-called Balkan route: Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria and Germany, which is their main country of destination. 

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