Macedonia shuts border to migrants as health concerns mount

A child closes a tent, backdropped by a banner placed on the enforced razor wire fence between Macedonia and Greece that reads "Made in EU" during a rainfall at the northern Greek border station of Idomeni. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Macedonia today shut its border to the 40,000 migrants camped out along its border with Greece. Tensions remain high as asylum-seekers, mostly from Syria and Iraq, are trying to make their way through Macedonia and on to Europe. People waiting to cross have spent weeks in an ad-hoc camp where unsanitary conditions are raising health concerns.

Greek authorities are now trying to encourage people to leave the camps, especially the more than 14,000 people gathered at the northern Idomeni border crossing. Heavy rains in the region are increasing the risk that infectious diseases could spread, health officials have warned. The Greek state health authorities sent a pair of mobile vaccine units to help protect children at the border.

“We are monitoring the situation and are here to take the necessary measures,” said Athanassios Giannopoulos, head of the Hellenic Centre for Disease Control & Prevention (Keelpno), to told reporters.

Countries along the refugee travel route from Greece to central Europe have taken new measures to stem the flow of people in recent months. As those measures took effect, a bottleneck was created in Greece.

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Pressure on the region brought some improvements, but Slovenia and Croatia announced Tuesday that they would not allow migrants to cross their borders. Serbia followed shortly after. With Macedonia added to the list the policies effectively seal off passage opportunities from Greece through the ‘Balkan route.’ Austria, which in February set a limit on the number of refugees who could pass through the country, welcomed the new policies.

“This is putting into effect what is correct, and that is the end of the ‘waving through’ (of migrants) which attracted so many migrants last year and was the wrong approach,” said Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz to AFP.

The European Union is scrambling to deal with the pressure created by the continued influx of refugees and varying national policies aimed at deterring people from coming to the region. Leaders will meet next week at a summit in Brussels to hammer out a deal that may include returning migrants and refugees to Turkey for settlement. Part of the plan would be to resettle a Syrian refugee living in Turkey for every person relocated there from Greece. The idea is to find ways to alleviate the pressure on Greece and still protect the lives of refugees. More than 1,300 migrants arrive in Greece every day, according to the Red Cross. Turkey is already home to more than 1 million Syrian refugees.

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But the head of the U.N. refugee agency is skeptical of the plan.

“I’m deeply concerned about any arrangement that would involve the blanket return of anyone from one country to another without spelling out the refugee protection safeguards under international law,” said Filippo Grandi to the European Parliament.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.