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False rumors spur refugees to rush Idomeni border crossing; others hold them at bay

AP/AFP-JIJI

A protest by hundreds of migrants, egged on by activists to demand that the border between Greece and Macedonia be opened, passed without any serious incidents on Sunday.

However, it exposed rifts between different ethnic groups among the over 11,000 refugees and migrants stranded at this makeshift encampment, some for weeks, after Balkan countries on what used to be the busiest migrant route to Central and Northern Europe shut down their borders.

The European Union has effectively approved this policy by signing a deal with Turkey that discourages war refugees from making the sea crossing from Turkey to Greece and ending the hopes of migrants from other countries of being admitted into Europe.

Several hundred Iraqis and Syrians in the Idomeni border camp stood between protesters and police on Sunday, thwarting the protesters’ efforts to march toward the fence separating Greece from Macedonia. Scuffles broke out between the two groups.

The protesters twice broke through the barrier the Iraqis and Syrians have formed, only to be pushed back by Greek riot police who used only their shields.

People speaking for the Iraqis and Syrians, including Kurds from both countries, told police that they are not taking part in the protest, which they said was mounted by people from Afghanistan and Pakistan. They also said that activists were circulating at the camp Saturday.

“There were people, whom we do not know, telling us that they would help us open the border at noon today, but obviously this was not true,” Syrian refugee Hassan Fatuhlla told The Associated Press.

Fatuhlla, one of those who have formed a chain around the police, has been at the camp for 37 days. His child was born in a tent 10 days ago, he said.

Leftist activists from Greece and other European countries have staged protests outside the transit centers and appear determined to sabotage the deal.

The rumors they spread that the border would open Sunday led some people who had gone to the centers to return to Idomeni. These people then began protesting that the border has not opened. With the protest having ended, many of those, often whole families loaded with baggage, took taxes or buses back to the transit centers, in a decidedly subdued mood.

“Some people lied to us about the border opening,” said Delbar Kalbey, 35, a Syrian Kurd from the city of Kobani, who made the trip from a transit center to Idomeni with his wife, their 7-year-old boy and a 6-year-old girl.

Greek police said they stopped two buses and 10 cars carrying Italian activists slightly over 3 km (2 miles) from the border protest.

Dozens of hopeful refugees, some carrying babies, earlier rushed to Greece’s overwhelmed Idomeni camp on the sealed border with Macedonia on Sunday following speculation that the frontier would be forced open.

The attempted border run came as Greek authorities were trying to evacuate an estimated 11,500 people stranded at the squalid camp after Balkan states slammed shut their borders, cutting off the main migrant route to the European Union.

About 300 people of all ages gathered by the railway tracks and the border fence earlier Sunday, singing and shouting slogans, an AFP correspondent said, in a largely peaceful demonstration watched by Greek police in riot gear.

Some elderly disabled refugees were sitting in wheelchairs sobbing while many other people, who had dismantled their tents in order to move quickly, were waving white handkerchiefs.

“No violence, we just want to cross,” read one banner, while another said: “Freedom of movement is everybody’s right.”

Some in the crowd, however, attempted to move toward the police line but were blocked by others who formed a human chain, the AFP correspondent said.

The commotion appeared to be triggered by a rumor that journalists and Red Cross officials would help migrants force their way across the fence into Macedonia, a young Syrian refugee told the Athens News Agency (ANA).

“They told us the Red Cross and 500 journalists from all over the world will be with us,” he said, without specifying the source.

Another young Syrian said his sister, who is living in Germany, had seen the same claim on the Internet and alerted him.

“People have been here for a long time. I think it’s very dangerous to cross, especially for the children but what should we do?” 24-year-old Qasim Mosawy from Afghanistan told AFP.

Dozens of other migrants could be seen heading through the fields, some carrying babies, toward the Idomeni crossing.

Using loudspeakers, Greek officials told those gathering that the crossing would remain closed, repeating the message in both Arabic and Farsi, ANA said.

“We are trying to step up our information campaign to the refugees. Some people, for reasons we don’t understand, are creating false hope,” said Giorgos Kyritsis, spokesman for the SOMP agency, which is coordinating Athens’ response to the refugee crisis.

As it became clear the frontier would stay sealed, calm returned to the camp and Greek authorities resumed evacuating refugees from Idomeni, with two buses leaving for centers in northern Greece on Sunday afternoon.

Eleven buses carrying some 600 refugees had already left Idomeni for other camps on Friday and Saturday.

Sunday’s brief dash for the border came two weeks after hundreds marched from Idomeni toward the Macedonian border, even crossing a surging river to do so, before they were stopped by Macedonian troops.

Three Afghans, including a pregnant woman, drowned. The rest were sent back to Greece.

The bottleneck caused by the recent series of border closures has created a buildup of around 50,000 migrants in Greece.