Macedonia bars Afghan asylum seekers, stoking violent clashes

Published Feb. 24, 2016

PARIS — A decision by Macedonian authorities to block thousands of Afghan asylum seekers from crossing into the country from Greece set off violent clashes between migrants and the police Tuesday, highlighting the challenges facing European nations as they seek to check the flow of people to the continent.

Greek riot police officers forcibly removed groups of Afghan protesters from train tracks at a migrant camp in Idomeni, Greece, a crossing point to Macedonia and a gateway toward Northern Europe, after Macedonia abruptly announced that Afghans would be classified as economic migrants, disqualifying them from political asylum.

The policy shift, unveiled over the weekend after Austria, Croatia and Serbia announced they would restrict migrant entries, means that newly arriving Afghans, who make up a third of asylum seekers in Europe, can now pass no farther north than Greece. Thousands more who are migrating north are stuck in countries where borders have temporarily closed.

The measures taken recently by individual countries to restrict the flow of migrants heading for Germany have added to the confusion in the European Union, where the response to the migrant crisis has been marked by disarray and political sniping.

"The Balkan route was a humanitarian corridor; it could close after consultations and not by turning one country against the other," the Greek migration minister, Ioannis Mouzalas, told the Greek channel Skai TV. "We are faced with an action that has elements of a coup."

European Union officials are considering a long-term suspension of passport-free travel around most of Europe, now permitted under the so-called Schengen accord, if the refugee wave is not slowed. The suspension would be a drastic step that could cost European economies billions of euros.

Some officials in Germany, the most popular destination for migrants, and in other countries are also starting to argue that because European nations have troops in Afghanistan to help quell the conflict, Afghan citizens should no longer be eligible for asylum in Europe in the same way that Syrians or Iraqis are.

Austria faced renewed criticism from European Union authorities Tuesday for unilaterally imposing a cap on asylum applications and entries, after its decision to place a daily limit of 3,200 entries and 80 asylum applications spurred a cascade of tightened borders that rippled south to Macedonia.

"We are concerned by the fact that some member states are acting outside of the agreed framework," said Natasha Bertaud, a spokeswoman for the European Commission, adding that the commission was investigating the legality of Austria's decision.

Asked about complaints by Greece that Austria's decision would lead to a backup of refugees in southern Europe, Bertaud said the commission was trying to develop a response.

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"Obviously with the tightening of controls along the Western Balkans route, the commission's concern is now to prevent any humanitarian crisis from occurring," she said.