Thousands of beleaguered refugees — mostly Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans fleeing bloody conflicts — crammed into trains and buses in Macedonia as they took one step closer to the European Union on Sunday, a day after they stormed past police trying to block them from entering the country from Greece.
On Saturday, some 2,000 rain-soaked refugees rushed past baton-wielding Macedonian officers, who had been sealing the border for three days. Police fired stun grenades and dozens of people were injured as people leapt over barbed wire or ran across a field not protected by the fence to enter Macedonia.
After that incident, police decided to allow the refugees to cross the border freely again from Greece, where authorities have also been overwhelmed by the growing influx of people fleeing Syria and other conflicts. Police officials said that the blockade of the Macedonian border was imposed to try and stem the flow of people that had caused chaos at a railway station in the Macedonian town of Gevgelija as thousands tried to secure places on overcrowded trains.
On Sunday, the refugees, many with children and babies, boarded trains and buses that took them to the border with Serbia before heading farther north toward EU member Hungary — which is building a razor wire fence on its frontier to keep them out. If they manage to enter Hungary, the refugees could travel freely across the borders of most of the 28 EU member states.
The more than 5,000 people who reached Serbia overnight faced an overcrowded refugee center where they have to apply for asylum — a status that allows them three days to reach Hungary. State Serbian TV said that a woman gave birth overnight inside the center, and that many people are sick and injured from Saturday's clashes.
“A huge number of people have arrived and we expect the same intensity in the next day or two,” said Serbian Defense Minister Bratislav Gasic, who toured the area on Sunday.
Emina, a refugee from Syria who boarded an early-morning train with her two-month-old baby, blamed Macedonian authorities for “harassing” the refugees, not giving them food or water, as well as holding them back at the border.
“It was very hard in Macedonia,” she said. “I did not sleep or eat for three days. Just as we arrived to the border, they closed it. It was awful.”
Both Greece and Macedonia have seen an unprecedented number of refugees arriving this year. More than 160,000 have arrived so far in Greece, mostly crossing in inflatable dinghies from the nearby Turkish coast — an influx that has overwhelmed Greek authorities and the country's small Aegean islands. Some 45,000 crossed through Macedonia over the past two months.
Few, if any, want to remain in Greece, which is in the grip of a financial crisis, or in impoverished Macedonia. Most of the refugees who enter from Greece want to head straight to Macedonia's northern border and then north through Serbia and Hungary on their way to more prosperous EU countries such as Germany, the Netherlands or Sweden.
Separately this weekend, Italy's coast guard said it coordinated the rescue of some 4,400 refugees off Libya's coast Saturday, the largest number so far in a single day.
The coast guard said 22 rescue operations were carried out for motorized rubber dinghies and fishing boats, all crammed with refugees desperate to reach Europe's southern shores.
So far this year, some 110,000 refugees have been rescued off Libya and brought to southern Italian ports. On Sunday, the Italian coast guard said it had asked three cargo ships to help in rescues, as more smuggler ships needed assistance.
The Associated Press