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EU humanitarian crisis spreads from Greece-Macedonia border as refugee crush worsens

AP/reuters/AFP-JIJI

Hassan Rasheed’s papers have been cleared but the Iraqi refugee has spent days freezing in a tent with no tarp on the ground and flaps that don’t close, one of 10,000 migrants stuck at a muddy camp on the border of Greece and Macedonia.

They’re hoping for a breakthrough in Europe’s troubled negotiations on how to handle the deepening crisis. But there was little sign of that Tuesday.

Austria’s chancellor insisted he would not to let his country become a “waiting room for Germany,” while authorities from four ex-Yugoslav countries on the migrant route vowed closer cooperation to keep people out.

“I’ve been at Idomeni for 10 days and it’s the fourth day I’ve been waiting to cross over,” the 27-year-old Rasheed said. “Conditions are very bad. There are many ill children who are coughing, and we spent the night in this tent under heavy rain.”

The heavily policed border, marked by a twin fence and coils of razor wire, remained closed a day after migrants attempted to push through the barriers and were forced back by Macedonian riot police using tear gas and stun grenades. Before that, sporadic closures since Feb. 19 had slowed the number allowed through to just dozens a day.

Overnight, rain soaked many families, who hung up clothing to dry Tuesday on the border fence.

More exhausted refugee families continued to reach the burgeoning tent city in this Greek border town on foot or by taxi. Many walked up to 30 km (18 miles) along Greece’s northern highways.

Ahmed Majid, a 26-year-old Iraqi, was traveling with his wife and two young children.

“We have been walking for 3 km. Police stopped our taxi on the highway, which is why we are going through the fields,” he said.

About 2,000 migrants are still reaching Greek islands from nearby Turkey every day, despite the recent deployment of NATO ships in the east Aegean Sea.

European Council President Donald Tusk was in Austria on Tuesday to try to persuade Chancellor Werner Faymann to change his mind about the country’s decision to accept no more than 80 asylum requests a day at Austria’s southern frontier with Slovenia.

But Faymann said Austria was determined not to accept the “policy of waving through” migrants to the rest of the EU.

“Austria is not a waiting room for Germany,” he said. “This disorganized chaos must end. … It’s important to have clarity on the EU’s external borders. (Otherwise) Austrians have to be active on their borders.”

Meanwhile, Austria’s interior minister, Johanna Mikl-Leitner, announced plans by her government to launch an advertising campaign in Afghanistan — including billboards, TV ads and public bus banners — to discourage Afghans from trying to reach Europe.

Tusk added a stop in Ankara to his schedule, ahead of next week’s summit of leaders from the EU and Turkey on migration.

To prepare for the summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was to meet French President Francois Hollande in Paris on Friday, and she remained vocally opposed to the Austrian border closure.

“We must stand with Greece,” a spokesman quoted the chancellor as saying on a Twitter post. “I am therefore in constant contact with (Greek Prime Minister Alexis) Tsipras.”

In Athens, the government said it has requested €480 million ($520 million) in aid for the refugee crisis from the EU, under an emergency plan to cope with as many as 100,000 stranded refugees — roughly three times the number now stuck inside Greece.

Athens is pressing EU countries to honor pledges to accept asylum seekers directly and for Turkey to help speed up deportations. The government said 69 people from North Africa considered ineligible for asylum were deported to Turkey, with another 230 people due to be sent back by Wednesday.

The impasse in Greece drew strong criticism from the United Nations refugee agency, which warned that Europe “is on the cusp of a largely self-induced humanitarian crisis.”

A UNHCR statement said inconsistent policies on the continent, which faces its worst immigration crisis since the end of World War II, “are causing unnecessary suffering and risk being at variance with EU and international law standards.”

New York-based Human Rights Watch blamed “discriminatory border closures” and the cap imposed by Austria for the crisis.

“Trapping asylum seekers in Greece is an unconscionable and short-sighted non-solution that is causing suffering and violence,” said the right’s group’s Greece specialist, Eva Cosse.

“It demonstrates once again the EU’s utter failure to respond collectively and compassionately to refugee flows.”

The build-up of thousands of migrants and refugees on Greece’s northern borders is fast turning into a humanitarian disaster, the United Nations said on Tuesday as the European Union prepared to offer more financial aid.

Merkel said clashes at Greece’s border with Macedonia on Monday — when migrants battered down a gate and were tear-gassed — simply underlined the urgency with which the EU needed to act on the crisis.

But Austria — which last month limited the number of migrants it lets through to 3,200 a day — stuck to its position that it did not want to become an overcrowded waiting room for thousands wanting to make it further north.

Croatia, which is also on what is now the well-trodden migrants route northward from Greece, said it might deploy its armed forces to help police control flows.

But near Idomeni, on the Greek-Macedonian border itself, a tent city mushroomed, prompting some despair among those trapped there. “Macedonian police put us here, the Greeks don’t want us back,” Yase Qued, a 16-year-old from Afghanistan, told Reuters.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) called for better planning and accommodation for at least 24,000 it said were stuck in Greece, including 8,500 at Idomeni.

“Europe is on the cusp of a largely self-induced humanitarian crisis,” U.N. refugee agency spokesman Adrian Edwards told a news briefing.

“The crowded conditions are leading to shortages of food, shelter, water and sanitation. As we all saw yesterday, tensions have been building, fueling violence and playing into the hands of people smugglers,” he said.

Migrants have become stranded in Greece since Austria and other countries along the Balkans migration corridor imposed restrictions on their borders, limiting the numbers able to cross.

Police chiefs from Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia, meeting in Belgrade, agreed to improve the system of joint registration of refugees to unblock gridlocks in Greece.

The burgeoning crisis adds to last year’s chaos when more than a million migrants and refugees arrived in the EU, many fleeing the war in Syria and walking from Turkey northwards.

Some 130,000 have reached the continent so far in 2016.

The European Commission, the EU executive, said it would float a plan on Wednesday to offer emergency financial aid for humanitarian crises inside the 28-nation bloc — comparable with operations it has launched elsewhere in the world.

Officials said the Commission plan would allocate €300 million ($325 million) this year to helping any EU state, not only Greece, deal with such crises, and 700 million in all over the three years to end-2018.

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker spoke to Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on Monday and European Council President Donald Tusk was on a visit to Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, Greece and Turkey.

Tusk’s tour comes ahead of a special European Union summit on the crisis next Monday. Germany’s Merkel said television pictures of migrants desperate to make their way into western Europe via the Balkans drove home the urgency of the summit.

“The pictures show us clearly every day that there is a need for talks,” she said after meeting Croatian Prime Minister Tihomir Oreskovic in Berlin.

“We also naturally need to deal with the very difficult situation in Greece and see how we can fulfill what the (European) Commission demanded from us, namely to end the politics of waving people through and to return to the Schengen system as soon as possible and to the greatest possible extent.”

The difficulty of reaching agreement on an issue that goes to the heart of public fears for security and safety in many countries was underlined by Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann, who honed in on comments from German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere that suggested he thought Austria might wave through too many migrants.

“What is not acceptable is to say that they should definitely come and then the interior minister says he is against waving people through (to Germany),” Faymann told a news conference after a weekly Cabinet meeting.

“Then how should they go to Germany?”

The UNHCR, meanwhile, urged all EU member states to reinforce their capacity to register and process asylum seekers through their national procedures as well as through an EU relocation scheme.

“Greece cannot manage this situation alone,” Edwards said.

Despite commitments to relocate 66,400 refugees from Greece, EU member states have so far pledged just 1,539 spaces and only 325 people actually have been relocated, he added.

Macedonia meanwhile said Tuesday it was stepping up troop numbers at its frontier with Greece, a day after police fired tear gas at hundreds of migrants who tried to break through a border fence.

The move came as Macedonia’s foreign minister defended the police force for firing volleys of tear gas at migrants, including women and children, who tried to break through a barbed wire fence into the Balkan country on Monday.

“Macedonia increased the number of army troops at its border with Greece as support to the Macedonian border police patrols,” army spokesman Toni Janevski told AFP, without specifying on numbers.

Police spokeswoman Natalija Spirova Kordic said the police presence had also been strengthened at the border as “a preventive measure after the events of yesterday.”

In a statement emailed to AFP, Foreign Minister Nikola Poposki said a few hundred young male migrants had “used violence in order to force entry into Macedonia from Greece” on Monday.

“The gates they have dismantled are several meters inside Macedonian territory. Clearly, it should have not happened if (the) border regime was respected,” Poposki said.

He said the choice had been either that the police pulled out and let the migrants into Macedonia — and on to Western Europe — without registering them, or “preventing illegal crossings by force and implementing EU Council conclusions.”

Decisions on what measures to take when faced with violence are “decided by trained policemen on the spot, not by a diplomat or journalist in an office 100 km or 1,000 km awa,y, Poposki added.

Thousands of migrants are stranded in Greece after Macedonia, along with other Balkan states including Serbia and EU members Slovenia and Croatia, imposed a daily limit on the number of migrants allowed to enter.

In a separate interview with German business daily Handelsblatt, Poposki warned of potential conflict in the Balkans owing to the pressures of the crisis.

“We have to be careful that it doesn’t lead to conflict between neighbors. Slovenia sends back illegal migrants to Croatia, Croatia to Serbia, and Serbia to Macedonia et cetera,” Poposki said.

“I fear that such a scenario could become reality with a high number of refugees. If in addition, pressure grows from the south of the Balkan route, then there could be a serious conflict situation in the Balkans. We must aim to avoid such a situation.”

Macedonia, which is home to 2 million people and has seen tens of thousands of migrants pass through its territory, is a candidate to join the European Union.

The EU however said it was “very concerned” about the crackdown at the Greek-Macedonian border, recalling that Skopje had “undertaken specific commitments” in October to work with EU states to ease Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II.