Tensions Boil Over in the Balkans

Published on IRIN News on 3 December 2015. Click here to view full report with photos by Dimitris Tosidis.

Riots broke out in the early hours of Thursday morning at Greece’s frontier with Macedonia as migrants and asylum seekers stranded there for the past two weeks blockaded the border, preventing people from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan from crossing.

Since 18 November, only refugees from those three countries have been admitted into Macedonia, while other nationalities have been turned away. Many of those refused entry have boarded buses and returned to Athens in recent days, but about 3,000 have stayed to protest being discriminated against on the basis of nationality. Some have embarked on hunger strikes while several Iranian asylum seekers sewed their lips closed last week.

“If the borders are closed, they should be closed for everyone. If the borders are open, they should open for everyone,” said a Moroccan migrant who has been languishing on the Greek side of the border, near the small town of Idomeni, for the past 10 days.

According to volunteers who were in the area, the latest trouble began on Wednesday night when a group of about 1,000 migrants attempted to cross into Macedonia from an unguarded section of the border. They were intercepted by Macedonian border police and repelled with teargas and rubber bullets.

Later that night, the spurned migrants began taking out their frustration on those allowed into Macedonia, blocking their path to the border crossing. A group of Afghan refugees retaliated by throwing stones at them.

Early on Thursday morning, some of the migrants began ripping down tents in the transit camp where most of them had been staying. They also looted containers belonging to NGOs, taking clothing, medicine and equipment. NGOs and aid agencies working at the camp were forced to evacuate their staff from the area.

During protests that continued throughout the morning, a 20-year-old Moroccan man jumped on top of a stationary train carriage and was electrocuted after touching some cables.

His friends retrieved his body and deposited it in front of Greek riot police, who froze at the sight of his naked corpse.

“I lost my friend here, and I was hit by rubber bullets by the Macedonian police last night,” a young Moroccan man in obvious distress told IRIN. “The situation is difficult here, but I will try to cross again.”

The Greek authorities responded by providing free trains and buses back to Athens for those migrants barred from crossing into Macedonia, but only a small minority agreed to leave.

Although the situation was calmer by Thursday afternoon, activists and volunteers working at the transit camp in Idomeni said they expected further problems. A heavy presence of Greek riot police remained.

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