Refugee Crisis: Balkans border blocks leave thousands segregated and stranded in Greece
New border control rules implemented almost simultaneously by the governments of Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia over the past 48 hours have resulted in large-scale renewed human rights violations, including collective expulsions and discrimination against individuals perceived to be economic migrants or refugees on the basis of their nationality, said Amnesty International.
The organization has monitored how the new measures in place along this route since 18 November have denied many people access to asylum procedures and left thousands of people stranded in dire conditions at Greece’s border crossing with Macedonia.
“This extremely worrying chain of events has yet again left thousands of people stranded in limbo, purely because of where they are from. At the very time when governments in the Balkans and Europe have vowed to work more closely together to improve safety and access to asylum on the Balkans route, the opposite is happening,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Director for Europe and Central Asia.
"These governments appear to have acted without thinking through the consequences for thousands of people who are now stranded in grossly inadequate conditions with nowhere to go and precious little humanitarian assistance. With thousands more people on the way, action is urgently needed to reverse this worsening disaster."
John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia Director at Amnesty International
“These governments appear to have acted without thinking through the consequences for thousands of people who are now stranded in grossly inadequate conditions with nowhere to go and precious little humanitarian assistance. This will only push those who are stranded back into the hands of smugglers. With thousands more people on the way, action is urgently needed to reverse this worsening disaster.”
Push-backs and segregation
During the night of 18 November, Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia all changed their border management practices suddenly, without prior notice, and more or less simultaneously.
Macedonia was the first to act, by refusing to admit anyone unless they have papers to prove they originate from Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria. This meant that hundreds of people were stranded, either because they are from other countries, including Iran, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Pakistan, or because they do not have identity papers. Greek border police in the village of Idomeni continue to prevent nationals of countries other than Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria from leaving on the basis that Macedonia would not let them in.
At 11am yesterday the Macedonian authorities suddenly closed the border to all nationalities, and kept it shut overnight. The border opened again this morning, but only for Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi nationals who are crossing at a rate of only around 50 per hour. There is a heavy Macedonian police presence at the border.
According to staff from the humanitarian NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) who are on the ground, around 6,000 people slept rough at Idomeni last night – up from 1,500 the previous night. The arrival of thousands more this evening is expected to swell the crowd to around 8,000 people staying in Idomeni tonight, according to MSF. There is shelter for only 900 people there. The reception centre in Gevgelija, on the Macedonian side of the border, lies empty and unused.
Local solidarity groups and an NGO have been providing food in Idomeni while UNHCR and Save the Children are managing meal distribution. Around a dozen UNHCR staff are currently present and plan to increase their resources.
While the Greek authorities have sent police reinforcements Amnesty International noted that they continue to fail to support humanitarian needs.
Tensions among nationalities have also been evident. On 19 November a group of around 200 Iranian nationals protested along the railway tracks, blocking the exit of a train carrying Syrian nationals to Macedonia.
Simultaneous border blocks
On the night of 18 November, Serbian border officials also started screening incoming individuals by nationality, allowing people of only Afghan, Iraqi or Syrian origin through. Around 200 people were collectively expelled back to Macedonia, where they spent the night at Tabanovce train station in prefabricated pods provided by UNHCR.
The next night, Macedonia closed its border with Serbia, leaving around 100 people stuck in the no-man’s land between the two countries’ border control posts. UNHCR was not allowed access to them, although the Red Cross was able to provide blankets. These people have now been returned to Macedonia and have been provided shelter in Tabanovce train station.
Also on 18 November, around 440 people were blocked from entering Croatia at its border with Serbia, with border police from both countries working together to prevent people getting on trains at Sid. A group – consisting mainly of single males, but also including three women and two children, from countries including Morocco, Bangladesh and Pakistan – was apprehended in Croatia and bussed back to Serbia.
Stiffer EU border controls
The ramped-up border controls along the Balkans route came ahead of today’s extraordinary meeting of EU Justice and Home Affairs Ministers in Brussels – the first in the wake of the attacks on Paris on 13 November. The agenda included a discussion about increasing security controls along the EU’s external borders as well as within the nominally borderless Schengen zone, but there seemed to be no focus on protecting human rights.
"Managed, safe and legal routes into Europe, with access to effective asylum procedures for all who wish to apply, would go a long way towards identifying security threats, while also living up to international obligations to provide protection to people who need it."
“It is crucial for countries in the region, in tandem with the EU and all its member states, to effectively coordinate border control without discrimination, which results in collective expulsions and unlawful returns of refugees and asylum seekers. Managed, safe and legal routes into Europe, with access to effective asylum procedures for all who wish to apply would go a long way towards identifying security threats, while also living up to international obligations to provide protection to people who need it,” said John Dalhuisen.
In July 2015, Amnesty International released a report, , documenting how refugees and migrants were routinely subjected to unlawful push-backs and ill-treatment by border police, and at risk of exploitation by smugglers.
The situation has only worsened as the flows of people increased throughout the summer and autumn months, and , when Hungary effectively sealed off its border entirely, placing additional stress on an already ad hoc and poorly coordinated migration route through the Balkans.