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Migrants mired in muddy no-man’s land as closed border bars way north

Reuters

The closure of the Balkan route to migrants has left about 430 desperate people, mainly Syrians and Iraqis, trapped in a muddy no-man’s land between Macedonia and Serbia, unwilling to go back to Macedonia but barred from heading to Serbia or farther north.

The migrants, camped within sight of Serbian border guards, were angered and confused by news that Serbia, Slovenia and Croatia had closed their borders to migrants in transit, effectively blocking the Balkan route taken by more than 1 million migrants to the European Union over the past year.

Persistent heavy rain has turned their makeshift camp of around 50 small tents provided by aid agencies into a quagmire and daytime temperatures are only around 5 degrees centigrade.

“Our children are dying. There is water all over, even under the tents. … Now it seems that the bombs in Syria look better than this misery. We are not animals,” said Ibrahim Mardini, a 23-year-old student from Aleppo in Syria.

The migrants’ long journeys from Iraq or Syria ended with a train ride through Macedonia and finally a walk to the Serbian border, where they have been stranded for three or four days.

Blocked from entering Serbia, they refuse to give up on their dream of reaching the European Union. Macedonian authorities say they could go back to an established migrant camp less than 1 mile (1 km) away in Macedonia, but they refuse.

“I want to go to any country, just not here. My baby is very tired. I cannot take it any more. I don’t want to go back. I walked too long,” said 25-year-old Weaam Fattal, also from Aleppo.

“I don’t have any other plan, I don’t know where to go,” said Fattal, who said she left Syria about two months ago.

Dhomo Shevan, a 45-year-old farmer from Iraq, was defiant.

“If they don’t let us pass, we will just go. Let us see if they stop us. This is unbearable,” he said.

Aid workers were distributing food and water and have set up portable toilets for the migrants. A Red Cross vehicle arrived and delivered blankets and warm hats for the children.

Close by, about 1,000 more migrants are crammed into the Macedonian transit camp, designed for 700 people. Their future is equally uncertain.

Ivo Kunovski, an aid worker with U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, said: “We don’t know what is next. We are waiting to see what will they (the authorities) decide.

“There is enough food and clothes. Everyone has a roof over their head, but the situation with the people in no man’s land is worse. There are women, children and elderly people there. We are trying to help them,” he said.

The closure of the Balkan route could lead to migrants taking new routes to try to reach Europe, the deputy executive director of EU border agency Frontex said on Thursday.