AP on News24, photo: AP
Idomeni - Greek riot police struggled to restore order on Thursday after chaotic clashes between asylum-seekers at the country's border with Macedonia, where thousands seeking a new life in the European Union have seen their long trek north brought to an abrupt halt by closed borders and new rules.
At least two people were injured on Thursday at the Greece-Macedonia border as hundreds of people whom Macedonia has refused entry - so-called economic migrants - clashed with Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis, the war refugees that Macedonia is allowing in.
Despite using tear gas, 150 riot police on the Greek side near the village of Idomeni failed to budge a small group of mainly Iranian migrants - some holding small children - who set up barricades to prevent refugees from entering Macedonia. Police distributed fliers warning the economic migrants that they must leave the border area within three days, and the government implied it would take more drastic action if necessary.
The clashes came as Greece faces mounting pressure from its EU partners to ensure better control of its borders and register arriving migrants, or face the prospect that passport checks could be reintroduced for Greek citizens in Europe.
More than 600 000 migrants have flooded into Greece this year, many fleeing conflict in Syria or Iraq. Nearly all have entered the country from nearby Turkey, paying large fees to smuggling gangs who arrange their crossings in small, frail boats. Accidents are frequent and hundreds of people have drowned this year in the Aegean Sea.
Police say about 6 000 people are stuck at Idomeni, sleeping in a shelter provided by charities, in hundreds of tents or in the fields. About 3 500 are Iranians, Pakistanis and other nationalities not allowed in by Macedonians, while the rest are from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
An Iranian manning the barricade, 45-year-old Saeid Kanani, said he has been trapped at the border for the past two weeks, since Macedonia imposed its policy of selective admission.
"We don't have anything against the other people, but we have to cross too," he told The Associated Press. "If we go back home we will be killed, so if I am to die I might as well die here."
"Why aren't they allowing us to cross?" asked Eli, a 30-year-old Pakistani who has been living in Greece for six years and wanted to go to Germany. He would not give his surname for fear of reprisals for manning a roadblock.
Earlier, a man believed to be from Morocco was fatally electrocuted after touching high-power railway cable when he climbed on top of a train at the border with Macedonia. Other migrants lowered his severely burned body to the ground and covered it with a sheet.
On Friday, EU interior ministers will discuss the state of border controls in Greece, where authorities say they are doing their best but face inadequate assistance from the EU.
"There are a certain number of improvements that need to be done," European Commission spokesperson Margaritis Schinas said on Thursday. "We have two weeks to make sure that this is seen, it's tangible, it's happening," before the Commission submits a report on borders and refugee movements to EU leaders on December 17.
Greek authorities have been struggling to accurately register all the migrants entering the country, and mistakes are frequent. Many migrants also dodge the registration process or use fake papers sold by smuggling rings to make their way to Macedonia.
Unable to cope with the flow of people, countries further north have erected razor-wire fences and reintroduced border controls, casting doubts about the viability of the 26-nation Schengen system.
Greece's minister for migration policy, Ioannis Mouzalas, told Parliament on Thursday the talk of ejecting the country from the Schengen zone comes mostly from EU members like Hungary, which oppose admitting refugees into the EU.
EU diplomats, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity, underlined that there is no provision in the Schengen rule book for kicking a country out or freezing its membership. But Greece's neighbours could reintroduce border controls for Greek people if the country were deemed to be "seriously neglecting its obligations."
Mouzalas said he hopes to have cleared up the impasse at the Macedonian border in "four or five days".
"The situation in Idomeni must stop," he said. "Obviously, [the solution] will not be a stroll in the woods ... nobody likes to see the use of violence or anything else."
He said work was moving ahead on building screening centres on its Aegean Sea islands. But he added the EU has failed to meet a Greek request for additional equipment for fingerprinting migrants.
Greece's financially-strapped government says it has spent about €1bn ($1.12bn) addressing the migrant crisis and only received €30m in EU aid.
A day ago, Mouzalas said some in the EU "mistakenly believe that the refugee flow can be controlled from Greece".
"Greece is the start of the corridor. The door is in Turkey. Therefore if the flows are not controlled in Turkey, from the coast of Turkey, it is impossible to control the flows from Greece or any other European Union member," he said.