Migrant masses defy Macedonia border closure, brave swollen river to exit Greece


Hundreds of refugees and migrants stranded in Greece are crossing into neighboring Macedonia, defying border closures by Balkan countries.

Several hundred people are making their way across the border after walking for hours in heavy rain and wading across a river — many holding children and their belongings over their heads as they crossed thigh-deep in the water.

The migrants then found a break in the border fence near the Greek village of Hamilo, and crossed into Macedonia.

In chaotic scenes, Greek and international volunteers helped the migrants across the river, using a rope to help them through the fast-flowing water. Earlier in the day, Macedonian police found the bodies of three people thought to be migrants crossing a river in a nearby area.

Macedonia’s border has been sealed for the past 10 days, following transit restrictions imposed by EU-member Austria.

The migrants walked out of the overcrowded camp of Idomeni on the Greek-Macedonian border Monday, traveling west on foot.

They repeatedly defied orders by the Greek police to turn back.

More than 40,000 people have been stranded in Greece after Macedonia and other ex-Yugoslav countries closed their borders to migrants and refugees — prompting them to seek more dangerous crossings.

About 14,000 are at Idomeni alone, where conditions have continued to deteriorate after days of torrential rainfall.

Underscoring the risks, police in Macedonia said the bodies of one man and two women, believed to be migrants, were found Monday in the Suva Reka river near the border with Greece. Twenty migrants crossed safely and another three were hospitalized, authorities said.

“This is the situation in which people have become desperate and frustrated,” said Ljubinka Brasnarska, a spokeswoman in Macedonia for the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR.

“The border restrictions imposed by the countries have forced people to take desperate actions.”

Police and armed forces on the Macedonian side of the border have stepped up patrols along parts of the newly built border fence where migrants are likely to cross.

Parts of the fence are made up solely of coils of razor wire, while breaks in the barrier also occur at rivers and mountain slopes on the border, mainly to the west of Idomeni.

A cap on migrants imposed by Austria last month set off a domino effect of border closures across the Balkans, leaving thousands stranded in Greece.

Despite the closures, more 8,500 refugees and migrants traveled to the Greek islands from Turkey last week, according to the UNHCR.

In an interview published Sunday, Austria’s foreign minister said border closures should be extended.

Sebastian Kurz told Germany’s Bild am Sonntag newspaper that the route leading through Italy to Central Europe should also be blocked.

“Smuggling can’t be prevented entirely … (so) we will have to do everything that we are now doing on the western Balkan route along the Italy-Mediterranean route too.” he said.

“The time of waving through refugees to Central Europe is over.”

The hundreds of migrants who marched out of the Greek transit camp, hiked for hours along muddy paths and crossed a rain-swollen river to get around a border fence and cross into Macedonia, were detained on Monday, authorities said.

A Macedonian police spokeswoman said the “several hundred” migrants who had crossed into Macedonia would be sent back to Greece. A Reuters photographer put the number who crossed as high as 2,000. Around 30 journalists who followed the migrants were also detained, witnesses said.

Earlier, Macedonian police said three migrants — two men and a woman — had drowned crossing a river near the Greek border that had been swollen by heavy rain.

The migrants crossed the border just days before leaders from the European Union and Turkey are due to meet again to seal an agreement intended to keep migrants in Turkey from moving to Europe through Greece.

At least 12,000 people, including thousands of children, have been stranded in a sprawling tent city in northern Greece, their path to the EU blocked after Macedonia and other nations along the western Balkan route closed their borders.

On Monday, more than 1,000 migrants streamed out of the camp, setting off to find a way around the twin border fences Macedonia built to keep them out. A second group of migrants, many of them from war zones in Syria and Iraq, later followed them.

Heading west in a cavalcade snaking along muddy paths, the migrants, wrapped in coats and hats, carried their belongings in rucksacks and bags. Many were children, some walking, others riding in strollers. Some made victory signs as they walked.

When they reached a river, the migrants stretched a rope across it and formed a human chain to cross, Reuters photographer Stojan Nenov said. They carried children across on their shoulders.

Once over the river, the migrants walked along the border fence until they found the point where it ended in mountainous country. But after they crossed the border, Macedonian soldiers rounded them up and put them in army trucks.

“We are taking measures to return the group to Greece,” the Macedonian police spokeswoman said.

Greek police appeared to make no attempt to hinder the first group to leave the camp, but they blocked the second group from continuing. The migrants managed to break through and went on.

UNHCR regional spokesman Babar Baloch said conditions in the Idomeni camp in Greece were difficult after days of heavy rain. “This is not a proper camp. People are exhausted, tired and running out of patience,” he said.

More than a million people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and beyond have flooded into the EU since early 2015. Most made the perilous sea crossing from Turkey to Greece, then headed north through the Balkans to Germany.

In Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Monday there was no question Germany has benefited from the closure of the Balkan migrant route. A day earlier, voters in three regional elections had punished her conservatives and flocked to a new anti-immigration party that wants German borders closed.

But Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said it was time to say enough to the selfishness of countries that thought raising a wall was a lasting response to the migrant challenge.

“How long do you think a wall might last in the Internet age,” Renzi told students in Rome. “How can you defend a border when terrorists are born and raised in our cities?

“How long can we turn a blind eye on all this, looking only at our next election, instead of patiently continue working at the European construction?”