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Migrants defy border closure to cross into Macedonia

Published 14/03/2016

A woman is supported by two men while crossing a river as migrants attempt to reach Macedonia (AP)
A woman is supported by two men while crossing a river as migrants attempt to reach Macedonia (AP)

More than 2,000 migrants and refugees stranded in Greece braved torrential rain and waded across a fast-flowing river to walk into neighbouring Macedonia, defying Europe's border closures.

In dramatic scenes, refugees held children and their belongings over their heads as they crossed thigh-deep in the water, while elderly migrants clutched ropes placed by volunteers to help them across.

But their time in Macedonia and planned journey onward towards western Europe might be short-lived. Macedonian soldiers and police detained hundreds of people after they had just crossed from Greece and put them into trucks, authorities said.

Monday's events were the biggest challenge to border closures since the route from Greece to central Europe was sealed off 10 days ago, leaving more than 40,000 people stranded in Greece - and it came days before European Union leaders try to hammer out a deal with Turkey to try to hold more refugees there.

The migrants walked out of the overcrowded camp of Idomeni on the Greek-Macedonian border on Monday, travelling west on foot.

Syrian Ibrahim Almad said he had been stuck in Greece for a month.

"My brother is in Stuttgart, in Germany, and I want to join him," he said, pointing towards other refugees. "Look at what they are making us do - look at all these women and children."

Mr Almad also walked from Idomeni, where 14,000 people remain camped out.

In chaotic scenes at the nearby border village of Hamilo, Greek and international volunteers helped migrants across the river, using ropes to make sure they were not swept away by the rapids.

Macedonia's border was closed following transit restrictions imposed by EU member Austria.

Underscoring the risks, police in Macedonia said the bodies of one man and two women, all Afghans, were found on Monday in the Suva Reka river near the border with Greece. Twenty migrants crossed safely and another three were in hospital, authorities said.

"This is the situation in which people have become desperate and frustrated," said Ljubinka Brasnarska, a spokeswoman in Macedonia for UN refugee agency UNHCR.

"The border restrictions imposed by the countries have forced people to take desperate actions," she said.

Parts of Macedonia's border fence are made up solely of coils of razor wire, while breaks in the barrier also occur at rivers and mountain slopes on the border, mainly to the west of Idomeni.

A cap on migrants imposed by Austria last month set off a domino effect of border closures across the Balkans, leaving thousands stranded in Greece.

Despite the closures, more than 8,500 refugees and migrants travelled to the Greek islands from Turkey last week, according to the UNHCR.

In an interview published on Sunday, Austria's foreign minister said border closures should be extended.

Sebastian Kurz told Germany's Bild am Sonntag newspaper that the route leading through Italy to central Europe should also be blocked.

"Smuggling can't be prevented entirely ... (so) we will have to do everything that we are now doing on the western Balkan route along the Italy-Mediterranean route too," he said.

"The time of waving through refugees to central Europe is over."

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