The UN has warned against increasingly restrictive border practices put in place by European countries, as aid workers reported thousands of refugees and migrants remained stuck in limbo between Greece and the Balkans.
As more refugees and migrants risk the dangerous journey by boat, countries north of Greece have implemented restrictive measures in an attempt to staunch the flow. Already, in November, several Balkan countries began only allowing Syrian, Iraqi, and Afghan asylum seekers to pass through their borders. In the past week, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, as well as Austria further restricted their border policies. Authorities in Austria said that they would impose a daily entry limit of 3,200 people and limit asylum applications to 80 per day. Slovenia issued similar directives, which the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, said on Tuesday "risk violating EU law."
The recent shift in policy, it said, "are placing additional undue hardships on refugees and asylum-seekers across Europe, creating chaos at several border points, and putting particular pressure on Greece."
In a statement, the agency said that that the tightening had resulted in a "domino effect" and the buildup of refugees marooned at the border between Greece and Macedonia. On Tuesday, the medical charity Doctors Without Borders reported that Afghans who previous had been allowed to pass along with Iraqis and Syrians were now being turned away at that frontier, as well as the border between Macedonia and Serbia. MSF said that 60 Afghans were stuck in "no man's land" between Macedonia and Serbia, with both countries denying them access. The UN reported that a total of 700 people, mostly Afghan, had been blocked from entry into Serbia.
"People are being sent back and forth between borders with no clear information about their rights or what will happen tomorrow," said Stephane Moissang, MSF's director in Serbia. "By experience, we know they will be pushed towards smuggling networks and unsafe routes, exposed to the risk of abuse and violence."
MSF said that hundreds of Afghans were sent by Greek authorities from the border town of Idomeni to the capital Athens, where they were placed in refugee reception facilities. The charity said that a backlog could have disastrous consequences, estimating that Greece only has capacity to host some 3,700 people on the country's mainland.
"If Afghans continue to be blocked the entire reception system will be overwhelmed in just eight days," said Elisabeth Ingres, who runs the group's activities in Greece. "In the absence of any realistic emergency plan, we are extremely worried that the already catastrophic situation will only worsen."
The UN meanwhile instructed that countries in the region should "inform refugees and asylum seekers of their procedures, including clear details on the criteria for access to admission, asylum or return."
Already this year, more than 100,000 people — including nearly 43,000 in February alone — have arrived in Greece after traversing the Mediterranean, according to the International Organization for Migration. At least 320 have died attempting the journey. Last year, the number of refugees entering Europe across the sea only surpassed 100,000 in June.