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Macedonian authorities have created peculiar new restrictions for the thousands of refugees trying to cross the border from Greece by only granting entry to those from cities they consider to be at war, according to Greek officials. The rules mean that Syrians from Aleppo are welcome, but not refugees from Damascus are not.
Two Greek officials gave this information to the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity. The AP said it was able to confirm the information with the UN refugee agency.
Macedonia is a landlocked country north of Greece, sandwiched between Bulgaria on its east and Albania on the west. As a result, Idomeni, the Greek town bordering Macedonia, has become a popular gateway into the Balkans for refugees trying to continue on to Western Europe.
The new restrictions on the border provide a possible explanation for why Macedonia's intake of refugees has slowed to a trickle over the last two weeks. Around 14,000 refugees from cities deemed insufficiently war-torn by Macedonian authorities are now stranded in Idomeni.
The refugee camp there is filled over capacity, forcing thousands to pitch their tents in nearby fields and railway tracks. Last week, mounting tensions on the Greek-Macedonian border seemingly came to a head when hundreds of stranded refugees attempted to scale the border fence while police fired tear gas at them.
The AP reported that the refugee camp in Idomeni is "beginning to take on a form of semi-permanence," with residents seemingly unconvinced that they will be allowed to enter Macedonia any time soon. Food and clothing donated by local Greeks are spread very thin among the thousands stranded. On Sunday, men, women and children were reportedly scrambling to receive whatever supplies they could. Hundreds of people reportedly begin lining up early in the morning to receive a sandwich for lunch.
"This is not all right," UNHCR spokesperson Ljubinka Brasnarska told the AP. "Everybody from Syria who came needs international protection. This decision could be taken only by other competent international bodies, not by border authorities."
In a statement, Macedonian police said, "Iraq and Syria are considered unsafe countries, but if one of the countries on the route introduces new restrictions [we] will be forced to consider the possibility to [apply] them also on the Macedonian-Greek border, including the ban on the entry of migrants from certain areas."
The new restrictions are likely to be subject to discussion at Monday's EU-Turkey summit on the ongoing refugee crisis. Greek officials have repeatedly said that they are overwhelmed by the volume of refugees arriving on their shores from Turkey, and have complained that Turkey and countries in the EU are not stepping up to share the burden.
Last September, EU interior ministers tentatively agreed to a controversial "quota plan" to relocate 160,000 refugees from Italy, Greece, and Hungary to other countries in the EU. Not all countries were game. Romania, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia all rejected the idea of mandatory quotas.
Some EU countries have started tightening their borders. Austria announced that it would impose a cap on the number of asylum claims it would hear on a daily basis. Nine countries in the Balkans have imposed tighter controls, including Macedonia.
In a recent interview with the public broadcaster ARD, German Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned the restrictions and expressed sympathy for Greece, whose government was recently bailed out when its economy collapsed. Merkel asked, "Do you seriously believe that all the euro states that last year fought all the way to keep Greece in the eurozone — and we were the strictest — can one year later allow Greece to, in a way, plunge into chaos?"
In October, Turkish delegates vowed to stem the numbers of refugees attempting to cross the Aegean Sea to Europe in return for a minimum of 3 billion euros. But thousands of refugees continue to make their way over the Syrian border into Turkey, and make often perilous attempts to reach Greece by boat.
On Sunday, at least 18 people drowned off the Turkish coast in an effort to reach Greece. The dead reportedly included three children. Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency reported that others are believed to be missing. The Turkish coast guard reportedly rescued 15 others near a Turkish resort.
According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), 113 migrants and refugees drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean this January, more than in January 2014 and 2015 combined. The IOM estimates that over 900 men, women, and children have drowned in those waters since the beginning of 2015.
Follow Tess Owen on Twitter: @misstessowen