Hundreds of refugees at the Idomeni camp have been stopped by Macedonian troops after walking through mud and forging a river to cross the border. Idomeni has become the latest flashpoint in the refugee crisis.
Hundreds of desperate refugees on Monday marched out of the water-logged Idonemi camp in Greece, seeking an alternative route across the sealed border of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
The mainly Syrian and Iraqi refugees, including children, trudged through mud carrying their belongings towards a river about 5 kilometers (3 miles) to the west of Idomeni, where some 12,000 refugees are stranded.
The refugees forded a swollen river that crosses into Macedonia, putting them closer to the sealed border as they searched for holes in a newly built barbed wire fence.
Highlighting the dangers, Macedonian state TV MRT on Monday reported three Afghans were found dead in the river, apparently having drowned the previous day as part of a group of more than 20 refugees trying to cross the swollen Suva Reka river.
Hours after setting out from the camp, several hundred refugees were able cross into Macedonia, where they were detained by border police and the army for illegally entering the country. Around 30 journalists following the refugees were also arrested.
Macedonia’s interior ministry said it was “taking steps” to return more than 700 illegal migrants back to Greece and would improve security where migrants crossed.
After Austria last month put caps on the number of migrants it would allow to cross its border, in a domino effect Balkan nations first restricted, then last week completely sealed border crossings to anybody without EU visas, effectively trapping more than 40,000 refugees and migrants in Greece.
After crossing the Aegean from Turkey to Greece, most migrants and refugees had moved to richer EU countries like Germany through the so-called Balkan route through Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is pushing a European solution to the refugee crisis and a controversial deal with Turkey, has come out against the border closures while recognizing they have helped reduce the influx of migrants into Germany.
“It is unquestionable that Germany benefits from [the route closure, but] we can see from pictures out of Greece that that is not a sustainable solution,” Merkel said Monday, a day after her party suffered in regional elections that were viewed as litmus test of her open-door refugee policy.
EU leaders and Turkey are set to meet on Thursday to hammer out a deal to stem the disorganized influx of migrants and refugees coming to Europe.
The border closures have raised concern that desperate and frustrated refugees will seek more dangerous ways to make their way north. So far, the closure of the Balkan route appears to have done little to stop migrants and refugees from crossing the Aegean.
According the UNHCR, more than 8,500 refugees and migrants crossed the Aegean last week, putting an even greater burden on Greece.