Idomeni, Greece: Stranded migrants lay with their children on rail tracks at Greece’s northern border Sunday, demanding to be allowed to continue their journey, as Athens warned the number of people “trapped” on its soil could more than triple next month.
Tensions between European countries worst affected by the migrant crisis were still running high, with Austria’s Chancellor Werner Faymann accusing Greece of “behaving like a travel agency”.
“We estimate that in our country the number of those trapped will be from 50,000-70,000 people next month,” Greek Migration Minister Yiannis Mouzalas said, after countries along the Balkan route introduced limits on migrant crossings.
“Today, there are 22,000 refugees and migrants,” Mouzalas added in an interview with Mega TV.
Several women suffering health problems were allowed to cross the border into Macedonia at the Idomeni crossing on Sunday night, a police officer told AFP — but some 6,500 people remained stuck at the camp there.
Earlier in the day, several hundred refugees and migrants had protested by sitting and lying with their children on the rail tracks at Idomeni.
Some held up handwritten posters that read “Open the borders, no food” and “We are humans, not animals”.
They later moved towards the border fence, chanting slogans to demand to be allowed into Macedonia so they can continue their journey to elsewhere in Europe.
Macedonian authorities let just 300 migrants through on Saturday, with the bottleneck growing.
“I’m 17 days on the road with my family and my two children. I don’t know what to do,” one Syrian man lying on the rail tracks with his children told Athens News Agency.
The build-up at the Idomeni camp, which can hold up to 1,500 people, began in earnest last week after Macedonia began refusing entry to Afghans and imposed stricter controls on Syrians and Iraqis.
The bottleneck was expected to worsen after EU members Slovenia and Croatia, as well as Serbia and Macedonia, imposed a daily limit of 580 migrants.
Those measures came on the heels of a clampdown by Austria, which lies further up the migrant trail to Germany and Scandinavia.
Austria introduced a daily cap of 80 asylum seekers and said it would allow just 3,200 migrants to transit the country per day.
The controls have had a knock-on effect in Greece, where migrants have continued to arrive en masse from neighbouring Turkey.
The tension has resulted in a public spat, with Austria accusing Greece of failing to adequately police its borders under its duty as the southeastern flank of Europe’s Schengen passport-free zone.
Chancellor Faymann compared Greece to a “travel agency” for migrants, adding in remarks to Austrian media: “Last year, Greece took in 11,000 asylum seekers, we took in 90,000. That can’t be allowed to happen again.”
But Mouzalas said Austria’s politicians were talking with one eye on the electoral calendar: a presidential poll is due in April.
“Austria is a friendly country. They have reacted this way because of course they have accepted many migrants but also because elections are on the way,” he told Mega TV.
Mouzalas said he expected the influx to slow when the information about closed borders spread in Turkey, where more than two million people fleeing the war in Syria have taken refuge.
He also said the campaign alongside NATO’s presence in the Aegean Sea, which is helping to police Greek waters, was expected to reduce arrivals by 70 percent.
Pope Francis used his weekly address on Sunday to hail the “generous help” offered by Greece to migrants and to urge European countries to work together to “share the burden fairly”.
In Italy, authorities are making preparations in case the border closures redirect the migrant flow towards the southeastern province of Puglia, which lies across the Adriatic Sea from Albania.
Coastguards and customs officials are patrolling the 300-kilometre (180-mile) coastline, which has numerous secluded beaches where boats can land discreetly.
Meanwhile, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said he wants to speed up repatriations of rejected asylum seekers from North Africa.
Modern technology such as biometric identity papers could help, he said, adding that “we could imagine offering our support” in the area.
“Our goal is to make the procedures more efficient and faster,” he said in emailed responses to written questions from AFP.
De Maiziere was to begin Sunday a visit to Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia — nations that would be declared safe countries of origin under a law that Germany wants to introduce, thus making it easier to send back rejected asylum applicants.