Migrants Cross after Macedonia Reopens Greek Border


After a night on the Greek-Macedonian frontier in sub-zero temperatures, some 2,000 mainly Syrian refugees on Thursday resumed their tortuous trek to northern Europe that was temporarily blocked by a border closure by Skopje.

"I'm very happy the problem is resolved," said 19-year old Imad. "I want to go to Germany to study".

Imad and some 1,200 other conflict refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan had just spent the night in heated tents operated by aid groups.

Though cramped and stifling with the scent of body odor, the tents were nonetheless preferable to sleeping on parked buses -- which is exactly what another 600 refugees had to do for lack of available space.

Macedonia this week decided to close its border with Greece, and only reopened it on Thursday for refugees wishing to go to Germany or Austria.

"The border crossing for migrants near (the Macedonian border town of) Gevgelija opened early this morning, but only those migrants whose Greek registration papers show their final destination as Germany or Austria can enter," a senior police official in Skopje told AFP.

Greek police lend a hand by duly adding 'Germany' or 'Austria' to the refugees' registration papers. By midday, some 400 people had crossed the border.

"It's a temporary procedure to reduce pressure on the camp, which can only accommodate 1,500 people at most," a Greek police source said.

Aid groups had warned that their resources had been stretched to capacity, raising fears for the fate of families with small children already suffering from colds.

Wood fires are burning in barrels outside the tents, and benches have been brought up so the refugees don't have to sit on the freezing soil.

"If this flow continues there is no possibility for accommodation," said Antonis Rigas, head of the local Doctors Without Borders mission to the Greek side of the frontier.

"It gets very cold at night. Early this morning the temperature was minus seven Celsius (19 Fahrenheit)," he said.

Leading children's charities have warned that young refugees were at serious risk from the bitterly cold Balkan weather, as figures showed 31,000 refugees and economic migrants had arrived in Greece already this year.

Among them is Bashar Darwish, a guitarist with Syrian rock group Khebez Dawlem, three of whose bandmates have already reached Berlin.

"I want to rejoin them and continue giving concerts," he says.

"Our songs are about war, xenophobia, racism. We are people with the same problems and concerns as Europeans," he says.

Unlike Darwish, many other Syrians hide their faces and ask photographers and camera crews not to capture their image.

"We are very worried because after the (November 13 jihadist) attacks (in Paris) everybody thinks we are possible terrorists," says a young Syrian who declined to give a name.

Macedonia on Wednesday said it had closed the border with Greece owing to problems with Slovenian trains that had disrupted the flow of migrants moving further north.

Greek police countered that the frontier had actually shut a day earlier.

And the Slovenian rail company Slovenske Zeleznice insisted they were running services as normal.

Macedonia's plans to allow through only those who seek refuge in Austria and Germany follows similar decisions by countries further along the main migrant route -- Serbia and Croatia announced they would do the same on Wednesday.

Austria last week also signaled that it would follow neighboring Germany's lead and begin turning back any new arrivals seeking to claim asylum in Scandinavia, after Sweden and Denmark tightened their borders.

Countries along the Balkan route earlier restricted entry only to refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

More than one million migrants and refugees crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Europe in 2015, nearly half of them Syrians, according to the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR.

The International Organization for Migration said this week that 31,000 had arrived in Greece already this year.

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