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Policy Shifts on Refugees Lead to Clashes Between Migrants and Police
A decision by the Macedonian authorities to block thousands of Afghan asylum seekers from crossing into the country from Greece set off clashes between migrants and the police on Tuesday, highlighting the challenges facing European nations as they seek to check the flow of people to the Continent.
Greek riot police officers forcibly removed groups of Afghan protesters from train tracks at a migrant camp in Idomeni, Greece, a crossing point to Macedonia and a gateway toward Northern Europe, after Macedonia abruptly announced that Afghans would be classified as economic migrants, disqualifying them from political asylum.
The policy shift, unveiled this weekend after Austria, Croatia and Serbia announced that they would restrict migrant entries, means that newly arriving Afghans, who make up a third of asylum seekers in Europe, can now pass no farther north than Greece. Thousands more who are migrating north are stuck in countries where borders have been temporarily closed.
The measures taken recently by individual countries to restrict the flow of migrants heading for Germany have added to the confusion in the European Union, where the response to the migrant crisis has been marked by disarray and political sniping.
"The Balkan route was a humanitarian corridor; it could close after consultations and not by turning one country against the other," the Greek migration minister, Ioannis Mouzalas, told the Greek channel Skai TV. "We are faced with an action that has elements of a coup."
European Union officials are considering a long-term suspension of passport-free travel around most of Europe, now permitted under the so-called Schengen accord, if the refugee wave is not slowed. The suspension would be a drastic step that could cost European economies billions of euros.
Some officials in Germany, the most popular destination for migrants, and in other countries are also starting to argue that because European nations have troops in Afghanistan to help quell the conflict, Afghan citizens should no longer be eligible for asylum in Europe in the same way that Syrians or Iraqis are.
Austria faced renewed criticism from European Union authorities on Tuesday for unilaterally imposing a cap on asylum applications and entries, after its decision to place a daily limit of 3,200 entries and 80 asylum applications spurred a cascade of tightened borders that rippled south to Macedonia.
"We are concerned by the fact that some member states are acting outside of the agreed framework," said Natasha Bertaud, a spokeswoman for the European Commission, adding that the commission was investigating the legality of Austria's decision.
Asked about complaints by Greece that Austria's decision would lead to a backup of refugees in southern Europe, Ms. Bertaud said the commission was trying to develop a response.
"Obviously with the tightening of controls along the Western Balkans route, the commission's concern is now to prevent any humanitarian crisis from occurring," she said.
On Tuesday, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees expressed concern about the practices adopted by individual countries in Europe. The moves are "placing additional undue hardships on refugees and asylum seekers across Europe, creating chaos at several border points and putting particular pressure on Greece as it struggles to deal with larger numbers of people in need of accommodation and services," the refugee agency said in a statement.
The European commissioner for migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos, and the Dutch minister for migration, Klaas Dijkhoff, urged countries along the Balkan route "to prepare the necessary contingency planning to be able to address humanitarian needs." The European Commission is also ready to offer support "in case of a humanitarian crisis both outside and within the E.U.," they said.
Also Tuesday, Belgium said it would impose police checks on its southern border to prevent the possible influx of thousands of migrants as a French court considers whether to tear down much of a notorious migrant camp in the northern city of Calais. The Belgian interior minister, Jan Jambon, said the move was needed "to prevent the erection of tent encampments in our country similar to those in Calais."
About 10,000 migrants have massed in and around Idomeni since the weekend, when the Macedonian police, buttressed by reinforcements from Austria, Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia, blocked Afghans and all other migrants from countries other than Syria and Iraq from entering.
Macedonia took steps after Croatia determined that hundreds of Afghan migrants crossing its border had not come to Europe to escape conflict and sent them back to Serbia, Nikola Poposki, Macedonia's foreign minister, said in a telephone interview. Serbia in turn sent hundreds of Afghans back to Macedonia, where around 800 Afghan citizens are now stuck at the border, he added.
Scores of buses from the Piraeus port, near Athens, which were carrying more migrants who days earlier had made a perilous crossing from Turkey, were stuck at several gas stations on a highway running to the northern border.
On Tuesday, a Greek government official with knowledge of the operation said the police were boarding buses at the gas stations and separating out Syrians and Iraqis. The police removed Afghan citizens and placed them on buses to return to one of several migrant detention centers in Athens, which are already saturated, including a new half-built center outside the capital.
The backup of migrants was increasing the strain on Greece, which has become a focal point in the crisis. European Union officials have demanded that Athens take steps to tighten screening and slow the flow of refugees, many of whom are hoping to reach Germany, or risk suspension from the Schengen zone.
Greece, which is reeling from a prolonged economic crisis, has protested that it lacks the funds to carry out the task adequately and was overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey, despite a pledge from Ankara to curb migrant flows in exchange for 3 billion euros, or about $3.3 billion, in aid from the European Union.
Only in the past two weeks has Greece opened several so-called hot spot facilities on the islands where migrants are most likely to arrive. But Athens has faced a sharp outcry from locals on some of those islands, such as Kos and Leros, who say they fear that the new centers, which are used to register and hold migrants until their applications are sorted out, will turn into permanent holding camps.
Greece is the most popular entry point into Europe for hundreds of thousands of migrants from Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. More than 56,000 migrants arrived in Greece by sea in January alone, 10 times the number in the same period last year. In the first three weeks of this year, at least 113 people died trying to make the sea crossing to Europe, the International Organization for Migration said, compared with 94 a year earlier.
Underlining the risks of the influx for Greece, the president of the European Parliament warned this week that the country risked becoming a "parking lot" for migrants unless the European Union moved to put in effect a plan to resettle thousands of migrants stuck there and in Italy.
[Source: By Liz Alderman, The New York Times, Paris, 23Feb16]
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