Refugees make perilous journey to Macedonia

12:44 pm on 15 March 2016

Hundreds of refugees have crossed from Greece into Macedonia after finding a way through the border fence.

The refugees marched out of a Greek transit camp, hiked for hours along muddy paths and forded a rain-swollen river to get around the border fence, where they were detained on Monday, authorities said.

A Macedonian police spokeswoman said the several hundred refugees who had crossed into Macedonia would be sent back to Greece. A Reuters photographer put the number who crossed as high as 2000.

About 30 journalists, including a Reuters photographer, who followed the refugees were also detained, witnesses said.

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

The crossing put the refugees issue back in the spotlight days before leaders from the European Union and Turkey are due to meet again to seal an agreement intended to keep refugees in Turkey from moving to Europe through Greece.

Refugees cross a river on their way to Macedonia from a makeshift camp at the Greek-Macedonian border.

Refugees cross a river on their way to Macedonia from a makeshift camp at the Greek-Macedonian border. Photo: AFP

Under the plan, still to be finalised, all refugees arriving in Greece from Turkey would be sent back. For each Syrian returned, a Syrian in Turkey would be resettled in the EU.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees have travelled through Macedonia over the past year, heading north.

Refugees returned after breaking through border

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 so-called Western Balkan route closed their borders.

On Monday, more than 1000 refugees streamed out of the camp, searching for a way around the twin border fences Macedonia built to keep them out. A second group of refugees, many of them from war zones in Syria and Iraq, later followed them.

Heading west along muddy paths, the refugees, 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 refugees stretched a rope across it and formed a human chain to cross. They carried children across on their shoulders.

Refugees formed a human chain across the river to help people cross into Macedonia.

Refugees formed a human chain across the river to help people cross into Macedonia. Photo: AFP

Once over the river, they 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.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said Hungary was the EU country that had sent most police officers to help non-EU member Macedonia protect its border with Greece.

"Macedonia needs and deserves help and assistance from the European Union because actually they've been protecting the southern border of the European Union," he told reporters in Brussels.

Petros Tanos, a police spokesman in northern Greece, said police were investigating media reports that leaflets had circulated in the Idomeni camp urging refugees to march on Monday.

"We do not know who produced it...nor how they found the ropes yet," he said, referring to ropes used to cross the river.

Daily life at a makeshift camp near the Greek village of Idomeni by the Greek-Macedonian border.

Daily life at a makeshift camp near the Greek village of Idomeni by the Greek-Macedonian border. Photo: AFP

Babar Baloch, regional spokesman for UN refugee agency UNHCR, said conditions in the Idomeni camp 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.

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 refugee challenge. "How long do you think a wall might last in the internet age?" Mr Renzi told students in Rome.

What is in the EU-Turkey proposal?

  • The EU leaders said "bold moves" were needed, and made the following proposals:
  • All new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey to Greece will be returned to Turkey. Irregular migrants means all those outside normal transit procedures, ie without documentation
  • In exchange for every returned Syrian, one Syrian from Turkey will be resettled in the EU
  • Plans to ease access to the EU for Turkish citizens will be speeded up, with a view to allowing visa-free travel by June
  • EU payment of €3bn ($NZ4.95bn) promised in October will be speeded up, with the possibility of further aid to help Turkey deal with the crisis. Turkey reportedly asked for the sum to be doubled
  • Preparations will be made for opening new chapters in talks on EU membership for Turkey

-Reuters / BBC

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