At Idomeni, scores of frustrated asylum seekers have created a makeshift protest camp by draping cardboard placards over the barriers that block them.
“Freedom of movement,” “Stop Racism” and “Let us go” read some of the signs, while others call for help from Germany and its leader Angela Merkel.
Dozens of times a day, riot police hold them back and lead Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans from arriving buses over the border into Macedonia, where they are put on trains to Serbia and a little closer to a future in western or northern Europe.
On Tuesday, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon criticized the border controls in a call for Europe to respond to the refugee crisis with “compassion, solidarity and shared responsibility.”
“Profiling asylum seekers on the basis of their alleged nationality infringes on the human right of all people to seek asylum, irrespective of their nationality, and to have their individual cases heard,” he said.
Amid regular scuffles at Idomeni, frustrated refugees have blocked the rail line and declared a hunger strike, and several Iranians have sewn their lips shut.
“The risk of possible conflict between refugees and migrants, the migrants and police and army, and between migrants and local people is rated as high,” said Macedonia’s president, Gjorgje Ivanov.
“Any increase in these [refugee] numbers will increase permanent and direct threats and risks for the national security of Macedonia,” he added.
Claims from some EU leaders that this influx of mostly Muslim refugees threatens Europe’s safety and traditional values gained resonance with the Paris attacks.
In comments characteristic of the views of several central European leaders, Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, said three days after the Paris attacks that “we don’t know how many terrorists have arrived with the migrants and how many are coming day after day.”
The bloodshed prompted Poland and Bulgaria to join Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic in opposing a German-led quota scheme to share refugees among EU states, and Austria and Slovenia had earlier followed Hungary in building fences along stretches of their borders.
Now Macedonia is doing the same — with razor wire and other equipment donated by Hungary — as EU members and Balkan states take unilateral steps that threaten the bloc’s already fraying plans for a coordinated response.
At a series of emergency summits in recent months, the EU laid out urgent steps to tackle the crisis — but implementation has been pitiful.
Fewer than half the staff offered by member states to boost EU border protection have been provided, and of 160,000 refugees scheduled for relocation from Greece and Italy, only 158 have been moved. EU countries have contributed less than one-quarter of the $2.9 billion they pledged for refugee agencies.
Balkan and central European states blame the EU for inaction and insist they must act independently — deepening a crisis of confidence within a bloc that was badly shaken by recent threats to the Greek economy and the euro currency.
The refugee crisis is now a battleground for the perennial debate over the need for “more or less Europe” — whether EU problems can be solved by boosting the role of the bloc’s administration or by giving power back to national governments.
Without synchronized action, the EU’s treasured Schengen system of passport-free travel will collapse, warned the president of the European Council.
“Saving Schengen is a race against time,” Donald Tusk said this month.
“Without effective border control, the Schengen rules will not survive.”
Europe is divided and paralyzed, and the first victims of its malaises are the thousands now trapped at places like Idomeni — with no road ahead or back, and their future as bleak as winter descends on parts of the Balkans.
“We’re extremely worried about the latest developments and fear that people will be stranded without any assistance, shelter and food, just as winter sets in,” said Stephane Moissaing, the head of mission in Serbia for Doctors without Borders, known by its French acronym MSF.
The United Nations refugee agency said the new Balkan border restrictions “were creating an increasingly untenable situation from every point of view — humanitarian, legal and also safety related, not least in light of falling temperatures and the risks for children and others with specific needs.”
“These measures by states are creating tension at border crossings and a domino effect, leaving in total limbo some refugees and migrants stranded at different border points," warned Adrian Edwards, a spokesman for the U.N. agency.
At Idomeni one recent afternoon, as refugees huddled around small, smoky fires to keep warm, U.N. staff tackled problems created further south on the Balkan route.
One Syrian man had been registered in Greece as Moroccan, and was being stopped from entering Macedonia; several other people who said they were Syrians said they had lost their papers on the treacherous sea crossing from Turkey and were now stalled at the border.
“They traffickers took our bags and threw them off the boat,” said Mamoud Tantouri, a Palestinian-Syrian refugee.
“For four days here we’ve been given no information, no clear answers — if we have another day of this, we’ll just pack up and go.”
Like Tantouri, most of those stuck at Idomeni said they would never turn back, but would only seek another route into the EU.
“We left Nepal about one month ago,” said Dipendra Chaudari, sitting beside a meager fire with four friends who had accompanied him on a journey of over 4,000 miles from Kathmandu, across Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“We had a terrible earthquake in April, and lots of people in Nepal have no money, no job, no house. Many people are leaving — there is no hope there.”
Some, like the Nour and Yassin from Morocco, believe they would be put in prison if they went back now.
“If we have to, we’ll walk through the mountains to Germany, or find someone to smuggle us — everyone here will do that.”
Until this month, Balkan states were operating a relatively smooth transport system for refugees, in which buses and trains took them between transit camps and ultimately delivered them to Austria. Most moved on to Germany.
Now, in the fields and country lanes around Idomeni, a sight not seen since the chaos of early summer has reappeared — gaggles of refugees looking for a way to sneak past border guards through forest and field.
It is inevitable, aid groups and migration experts say, that the refugees will now take longer and riskier routes into the EU, and pay traffickers to smuggle them through.
“I don’t have any money, but those who do are looking for smugglers,” said Elham.
“My friends with the little children tried to cross the border last night, but police sent them back,” she added.
“Now they are looking for a smuggler to help them. Most people here will do anything to stay in Europe – we’ve come too far to go back.”
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