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Europe

Greece slams Balkans refugee 'bottleneck'

media Migrants at train station in Macedonia Andrew Connelly

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras slammed a "bottleneck" of migrants at the border of the Balkans on Tuesday after Greek authorities moved back hundreds of Afghan refugees who were stuck in the country's north after Macedonia closed its border.

The increasingly complex refugee crisis worsened on Tuesday when hundreds of Afghan refugees were taken to Athens, after which the border opened to allow Syrian and Iraqi refugees to head north.

“A joint police statement by Austrian, Slovenian, Serbian, Croatian and Macedonian forces on 18 February caused a lot of confusion,” says Mohammed Arif, head of the UNCHR Macedonia in Skopje. “They mentioned that they would only allow in Iraqis and Syrians.”

The statement came after Austria announced a daily limit of 2,300 people into its territory and only accept 80 new asylum applications per day on 17 February.

“Slovenia followed and announced a similar cap to restrict movement across its border. These new restriction measures risk violating EU law and undermine efforts for a comprehensive and coordinated approach to deal with the refugee and migrant crisis,” according to Arif.

The result was that when Macedonia closed its borders, hundreds of Afghan refugees were stranded before being shipped back to Athens.

Hours later, at midday on Tuesday, the border reopened, allowing some 2,500 Syrian and Iraqi refugees to go north.

Meanwhile, the Greek islands most affected by the refugee influx are trying to cope.

“The situation on our island is under control,” says Angelis Angelopoulos, the mayor of Samos. “We have a network of volunteers, we have a network of international organisations working with refugees.

“But we have a flow of refugees five times the size of the population of Samos. Until now 150,000 refugees already passed the border between Turkey and Samos. The non-results of international negotiations don’t bring much improvement in this crisis."

Refugee numbers have decreased some 20 per cent since last month but this is due to the weather.

“It’s cold now and the human traffickers are unpredictable," says Angelopoulos. But he expects a massive increase in refugee numbers in the spring.

Meanwhile, as mayor of the island, he sees it as his task to try and convince Samos residents that they should help the refugees, while seeing to it that basic services are not affected.

“I try to convince them that it is a duty we have to respond to. And from that we try to ask more money from the Greek state in order to fulfil these obligations,” he says.

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