Thousands of migrants trapped in Greece as Macedonia tighten border controls

World Monday 22/February/2016 19:02 PM
By: Times News Service
Thousands of migrants trapped in Greece as Macedonia tighten border controls

Athens/Morahalom (Hungary): Thousands of migrants were stranded in northern Greece on Monday after neighbouring Macedonia demanded additional identification from people seeking to cross the border and head to Western Europe, witnesses said.
European leaders are concerned that migrants passing through austerity-hit Greece to more prosperous countries could end up stranded if Greece's northern neighbours tighten border controls.
Greek officials say the flow of people across the border slowed after Macedonia demanded additional identification from people seeking passage.
About 5,000 people massed at two locations in northern Greece, close to the border with Macedonia, while aid groups urged another 4,000, who arrived on the Greek mainland from outlying islands, not to head to north for fear of creating a bottleneck.
"Our biggest fear is that the 4,000 migrants who are in Athens head up here and the place will become overcrowded," said Antonis Rigas, a coordinator of the medical relief charity Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders).
Balkan states straddling the migrant route to western and northern Europe have begun denying passage to individuals not coming from the conflict regions of Syria and Iraq.
One migrant in his mid-30s, who said he was from the Syrian town of Aleppo, said Macedonian police did not let him cross the border because he did not have a passport.
"I lost everything in the war, I have no documents," he said, declining to give his name. He said he had obtained Greek registration papers at the island of Lesbos.
Macedonia has erected a metal fence topped with razor wire at the main crossing point for migrants along its southern border with Greece.
Greek migration minister Yannis Mouzalas criticised his neighbours for shirking their responsibilities amid the crisis.
"Not only have Visegrad countries not taken in one refugee, they didn't even send a blanket or a tent," he told the TV channel of Greece's parliament, referring to the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia.
They had not sent a 'single policeman' to reinforce the EU border agency Frontex either, he said.
Austria has invited Balkan states to a meeting on migration in Vienna on February 24, a day before EU interior ministers are due to meet on the migrant crisis.
Vienna has angered other EU members by imposing a cap on asylum claims, limiting the number of migrants permitted into its territory to 3,200 per day, and introducing a daily cap of 80 asylum claims.
Its interior minister has said Austria could impose even stricter controls, a move that could trigger other countries north of Greece to do the same.
Meanwhile, police detained 501 migrants over the weekend who cut their way through Hungary's steel border fence.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban has boosted his public support with a tough stance on migration. His right-wing government has put up a fence on the borders with Serbia and Croatia to keep out the mostly Middle Eastern migrants.
The fence diverted the flow of migrants away from Hungary toward Croatia and Slovenia last year when hundreds of thousands crossed the Balkans en route to Austria and western Europe.
However, as the weather improved in recent weeks, the number of migrants increased, and more began to cut through the fence despite a heavy police presence.
Not everyone jumps the fence, which is a crime in Hungary. On Monday a group of 20 to 30 migrants approaching from Serbia ran into dozens of police and soldiers patrolling the border near the town of Morahalom.
The migrants just headed to the nearest border station along the fence's Serbian side, shadowed by police in Hungary.
After a while, they sat down and asked for water, cigarettes and food across the fence.
"We don't find a job," said a man who said he was Moroccan.
"Six days no food, three days no water, four days no sleep," added another one, from Algeria.
Orban said Hungary would not let in any migrants who are not eligible for asylum. Those who are caught cutting the fence go to court and are expelled.
Orban told parliament on Monday that the biggest achievement of last week's EU summit was that European leaders finally said external borders of the Schengen Area had to be protected.
"The protection of the southern borders (of the EU) became possible... and if the Austrians keep their word, and other countries on the Balkans route also act as they announced, it will be also easier to protect Hungary's southern borders."
Orban reiterated Hungary would strengthen its fence and may extend it towards Romania if needed.
Meanwhile, on the Austrian-Slovenia border, one of the last stops on the migrant route to Germany, a policeman explains that after his 12-hour shift taking new arrivals' fingerprints, most are lost minutes after they are taken.
"We are not allowed to save the fingerprints," the Austrian policeman, who wanted to remain anonymous, said as he sat in a tent at the Spielfeld border crossing. "We do what we're asked to do."
Austria says it is not legally allowed to save and share with other European states more than 90 per cent of the fingerprint data it takes of migrants fleeing war and poverty, a potential security problem at a major migrant hub.
It is only required to upload onto Europe's shared fingerprint database, Eurodac, the data of those who actually apply for asylum in the country, which is less than 10 per cent of those crossing into Austria.
So Austria takes digital fingerprints of everyone entering the country, checks whether they have a criminal record, but does not save the data if they want to move on to Germany, which most do.
Roz, a 28-year old Syrian mother of two, is surprised to hear that her family's fingerprints are neither saved nor shared.
"They need to know who we are. If you record fingerprints of refugees, it guarantees security in this country," she said as she was shown by Austrian officials onto a bus that would take her to the German border, her chosen destination.
The situation highlights how European laws are far behind the challenges of the continent's latest crisis, one that has already seen hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees, mainly from Syria, flooding into the continent seeking a new life.
"That is a major problem, we have no records on these people, there are so many moving around the bloc and we have no trace of them whatsoever," said one diplomat in Brussels, adding that some EU countries have tried to push for changes but they were blocked due to privacy protection concerns.
Berndt Koerner, deputy executive director of Europe's border agency Frontex, said he was confronted with an "anachronism" in the sharing of migrant data.
"We are currently confronted with the problem that we cannot access certain databases, which can be used nationally in border controls," Koerner told reporters this month.
The system was not changed even after the evident security problems in tracing the movements of the surviving militants involved in the Paris attacks last November.
Only states on the EU's external borders, such as Greece and Italy, must save and share all fingerprint data.
Still, at a West Balkans summit in October all participants, including Austria, committed to registering, fingerprinting and uploading onto Eurodac all migrant data even on borders in the no-visa and border-control free Schengen zone.
Croatia and Finland, for example, save fingerprints of all migrants who arrive there, while Germany only lets in migrants who state they want to apply for asylum there.