THESSALONIKI, GREECE - The European Union migration commissioner is pleading with Balkan countries to open their borders to more than 13,000 refugees trapped for weeks on the Greece-Macedonia border, saying asylum-seekers fleeing violence in the Middle East deserve respect.
“I would like today from here, from Idomeni, to send a message all around Europe that it is exactly the moment for everybody to show solidarity and responsibility, the two basic principles upon which the European project is built,” Dimitris Avramopoulus said at an impromptu news conference at the camp.
“All our values are in danger today. And you can see it here in Idomeni. I believe by building fences ... is not the solution. We have to work together, member states of the European Union, but also neighboring countries, in order to address this issue in the best way with a full respect to all those who are fleeing persecution, dictatorship and terrorism,” he added.
Hours before his visit to the overwhelmed camp at Idomeni, Greece, more than 1,000 refugees forded a fast-moving stream five kilometers west to cross into Macedonia illegally, with another 500 following also trying to breach the border.
After trudging through mud carrying belongings and young children, most of the refugees were at liberty for only a short time. Macedonian soldiers and police detained hundreds after they crossed and put them in trucks, drove them back to the border and forced them to re-enter Greece.
Others who avoided the dragnet still face the prospect of their way north being barred because the Serbian border is also closed to them.
Macedonia's Interior Ministry says steps are already in hand to improve security where the refugees crossed Monday.
About 30 journalists and 20 aid workers who accompanied the refugees on their hours-long march in the rain were also detained, but released after paying a fine for entering Macedonia illegally. Greek police said groups of refugees were seen crossing back to Greece through unguarded sections of the border east and west of Idomeni, but they complained the Macedonians had made no official repatriation request.
Some of the returned refugees alleged Macedonian border guards hit them and gave them electric shocks before forcing them back to Greece.
The risk of fording border rivers and streams was underscored when Macedonian authorities reported they had recovered the bodies of three Afghans, a man and two women, from the Suva Reka river near the border with Greece. According to Macedonian state news, 23 others were rescued from the river and lodged in a local refugee camp.
Refugees have been scouting for ways to breach the border for weeks and small groups have managed to cross with the aid of smugglers, mainly Pakistanis and Afghans who are resident in Greece. The smugglers, who use routes at night through forests mainly to the east of Idomeni, charge more than $500 for a crossing.
“We then put them in taxis from there to travel to the Serbian border,” a 30-year-old smuggler who has lived in Greece for seven years, told VOA.
“If they want help crossing the Serbian border, that costs another $500 and all the way from here to Germany is $1,900,” he added.
The smuggler, who declined to give his name during the interview at a hotel in the village of Evzonoi near Idomeni, said he too was planning soon to go to Germany because his Greek residency card can’t be renewed.
The refugees at Idomeni are becoming more desperate as they struggle to secure sufficient food and medicine for their increasingly ill children. Many still cling to the hope the Macedonians will open the border, which was closed February 21, and other Balkans countries will follow, allowing them to be among the last to travel north before a provisional deal between the European Union and Turkey comes into effect that would return refugees who have crossed the Aegean Sea to Turkey.
Details of the deal, which has provoked the anger of U.N. refugee chiefs and rights groups, are to be finalized March 17. The U.N. refugee agency has warned any blanket return may violate international law and warns there is little sign of any let up in Syrian and Iraqi refugees planning to cross the Aegean.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said last week he finds the EU-Turkey proposal “interesting," but Greece officials say privately that they can’t see the government agreeing to a forcible removal of refugees. “It will be a PR nightmare for us,” an official told VOA. “If the refugees resist, I can’t see us forcing them.”
The leader of one of Greek’s opposition parties, Kyriakos Mitsotakis of New Democracy, warned Tuesday after visiting Idomeni that the camp risks becoming a “no man’s land” over which authorities have no control.