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Refugees Sew Lips Shut Over New Balkan Border Policy

A number of Balkan countries last week declared they would only grant passage to those fleeing conflict in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, and that all others deemed "economic migrants" would be sent back.

by Reuters and VICE News
Nov 23 2015, 9:12pm

Foto di Robert Atanasovski/AFP/Getty

A group of migrants stuck on the peripheries of the European Union have sewn their mouths shut in protest of ongoing policies in Balkan countries over their border policies that have left thousands stranded as temperatures drop to freezing levels.

Moroccans, Iranians and Pakistanis on Greece's northern border with Macedonia blocked rail traffic and demanded passage to western Europe on Monday. At least six Iranian men stripped to their waists and took needle and nylon thread to sew their lips closed, while other used tape to bind their mouths, AFP reported.

One of the men, a 34-year-old electrical engineer named Hamid, told Reuters that he wanted to go "To any free country in the world."

"I cannot go back," he said. "I will be hanged."

Related: The Paris Attacks Could Make Things Even Worse for Syrian Refugees

Hundreds of thousands of migrants, many of them Syrians fleeing war, have made the trek across the Balkan peninsula having arrived by boat and dinghy to Greece from Turkey, heading for the more affluent countries of northern and western Europe, mainly Germany and Sweden.

Last week, however, Slovenia, a member of Europe's Schengen zone of passport-free travel, declared it would only grant passage to those fleeing conflict in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, and that all others deemed "economic migrants" would be sent back.

That prompted others on the route — Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia — to do the same, leaving growing numbers stranded in tents and around camp fires on Balkan borders with winter approaching. 

The move has stranded a growing number of Iranians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and other nationalities from Asia and Africa.

A man sews shut the mouth of a fellow migrant from Iran as migrants and refugees wait to cross the Greek-Macedonian border near Gevgelija on November 23, 2015. Photo by Robert Atanasovski/AFP/Getty

Some of the refugees began protesting against the policy by announcing a hunger strike and blocking the railway line running between Macedonia and Greece on Sunday.

"We won't go back to Iran," one man had scrawled on cardboard. A light rain began to fall, while further north along the route snow announced the arrival of winter.

"We are people too," said an Iranian man who gave his name as Ahmed. "We are not terrorists, just ordinary people searching for a better life. We crossed thousands of miles. For what? To be stuck here?"

The new measure coincides with rising concern over the security risk of the chaotic and often unchecked flow of humanity into Europe in the aftermath of the November 13 attacks in Paris by Islamist militants in which 130 people died.

It has emerged that two suicide bombers involved in the attacks took the same trail, arriving by boat in Greece and then traveling north across the Balkans. Most of the attackers, however, were citizens of France or Belgium.

Related: The UN Is Warning Countries It's a Terrible Idea to Stop Accepting Syrian Refugees

Rights groups have questioned the policy, warning asylum should be granted on merit, not on the basis of nationality.

"To classify a whole nation as economic migrants is not a principle recognized in international law," said Rados Djurovic, director of the Belgrade-based Asylum Protection Center. "We risk violating human rights and asylum law," he told Serbian state television.

On the Macedonian-Greek border, hundreds of people were stranded in dozens of tents behind barbed wire, as Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans were filtered through fences and granted passage.

"We are not terrorists. We just go for a better life. Please let us go," read another banner.

One man denied entry stripped to the waist and wrote on his chest, "Shoot us or save us."

Related: In Photos: Chaos in Croatia as Migrants and Refugees Get Stuck in Balkan Bottleneck