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Macedonia Blocks Migrants; They're Bused Back To Athens


One of the main routes for migrants on their way into Europe is not as welcoming as it was. Macedonia is turning away many people seeking refuge. Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis can still get in. They can claim refugee status, but people from other countries - and there are people from many countries coming - are being labeled economic migrants, turned around at the border, and sent back the other way on a bus. Joanna Kakissis along that border on the Greek side in a town Kilkis. And Joanna, what's happening?

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Well, you know, for months now all migrants have been allowed to cross the border from Greece into Macedonia. They pass through Macedonia and then Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia on their way to Germany and Sweden and Austria. But in the last two weeks, the Balkan countries say they're overwhelmed. They've been started to limit who can cross. Macedonia is not in the European Union, and it claims it's following EU policy by differentiating economic migrants from refugees. That's why they're letting only migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq pass. Everyone else has to stay behind. And that means a lot of people have gotten stuck here in the cold with very few resources. MeRee Berio Ahkano is with the U.N.'s refugee agency here.

MEREE BERIO AHKANO: The site suddenly got really crowded because it was not meant to be a site where people would overnight. It was only supposed to be a transit site for people to wait a few hours and then cross over.

INSKEEP: Well, how are people responding when they got stuck at that border?

KAKISSIS: Well, there's been violence. There's been tension. There's been, you know, people attacking each other at one point. The migrants who could not pass blocked entry to Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis saying, look, if we can't pass through this border, then no one can pass. They set up tents on the muddy ground, on the rail tracks, and they intended to stay there. I met a Swedish-Iranian volunteer here. His name is Alireza Akhondi. He says the migrants all started to turn on each other and that all the optimism he saw in migrants this summer is gone.

ALIREZA AKHONDI: And the reason is lack of hope.

KAKISSIS: You look in people's eyes and...

AKHONDI: Yeah, I don't see any hope. We did see that before.

INSKEEP: OK, so people eventually get put on a bus, they get sent back in the other direction, but what ultimately happens to them?

KAKISSIS: Well, you know, they're stuck in Greece for now. The EU appears to have no workable unified policy to manage this migration crisis, so, Brussels is just leaving each country to figure it out on its own. For now, Greece is busing the migrants rejected by Macedonia back to Athens as you mentioned. Some are staying in the taekwondo arena from the 2004 Athens Olympics. Greece needs to find somewhere to house people until the migrants either claim asylum or are deported. But some migrants say they will keep trying to cross. I met a group of Somalis who were stranded at a gas station a few miles from the Greek-Macedonian border, and this is their third attempt to get across. Here's Lake Karaoghlan. He's 17.

LAKE KARAOGHLAN: All place are closed. How can we go? In order to plan or to take a decision something, you have to know the way, whether it's open or not.

KAKISSIS: He says his group was trying to get to Germany, but now those plans are all up in the air.

INSKEEP: Joanna, thanks.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's reporter Joanna Kakissis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.