Four Balkan states shut their borders to economic migrants

Four Balkan states shut their borders to economic migrants

BELGRADE – The Associated Press
Four Balkan states shut their borders to economic migrants

Migrants and refugees wait to cross the Greece-Macedonia border, near the village of Idomeni on November 19, 2015. AFP Photo

Four states along Europe’s Balkan refugee corridor shut their borders on Nov. 19 to those not coming from war-torn countries such as Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq, leaving thousands of others seeking a better life in Europe stranded at border crossings.

The overnight decision was exactly the domino effect that both asylum-seekers and European nations had feared would happen given the record number of people fleeing to Europe this year and new fears after the deadly Paris attacks of possible militants coming in with refugees.

The U.N. refugee agency says three Balkan countries shut their borders overnight to migrants from nations that are not directly engulfed in war.

Macedonia was not allowing in from Greece people from Morocco, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Liberia, Congo or Pakistan, the UNHCR spokeswoman in Serbia, Melita Sunjic, said on Nov. 19. Slovenia also said it has closed its border for the so-called economic migrants, while the Slovenian Defense Ministry said it planned to call up about 200 of a total of 914 army reservists to help control the influx.

On the Serbian border with Macedonia, the Serbs were only letting in migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. And on the Croatia-Serbia border, Croats were only accepting people from those three countries plus Palestine, she said.

Serbia has turned back to Macedonia some 200 migrants and Macedonia has not let them in, she said. “So they are stuck on a no man’s land,” she told The Associated Press.

Croatia’s Interior Minister Ranko Ostojic said the country has refused to take back 162 people, who were rejected by neighboring Slovenia as economic migrants.

Ostojic said on Nov. 19 that Croatia also will no longer allow in migrants from war-free countries who wish to pass through on their way toward Western Europe. He says Croatia has informed Serbia and Macedonia down the so-called migrant route, that “it is now obvious they will not be able to pass.”

In the Greek border area of Idomeni, police said the border has essentially been shut down to all since about 8 a.m. on Nov. 19 after roughly 300 people, mostly from Iran, gathered at the crossing seeking to also be allowed through. A further 2,500 people are waiting at a camp nearby that provides temporary shelter for those heading north through the Balkans.

The partial closure of the borders could trigger huge pileups of desperate people along the Balkan corridor that has seen hundreds of thousands of people cross as they head to wealthy EU states, mostly Germany. Although Syrians are the biggest group among the asylum-seekers, tens of thousands of people fleeing poverty, such as Pakistanis, Bangladeshis or Sri Lankans, have also joined the surge.

Serbian Labor Minister Aleksandar Vulin on Nov. 19 blamed EU-members Slovenia and Croatia for the ban, saying they have started turning back economic migrants, those fleeing poverty, not war.

“We have to protect our country. That is why we have applied reciprocal measures toward the people Slovenia and Croatia have no room for,” Vulin said.

Meanwhile, EU interior ministers are to agree on Nov. 20 to tighten checks at the external borders of the passport-free Schengen area to boost security after the attacks in Paris that killed 129 people, a draft document seen by Reuters shows. 

Ministers will agree to “implement immediately the necessary systematic and coordinated checks at external borders, including on individuals enjoying the right of free movement,” the draft conclusions of their meeting says.