A devastating refugee bottleneck has left thousands of men, women and children languishing on blankets and cardboard in public parks in Greece and has brought diplomatic tensions in Europe to new highs.
The new phase of Europe’s migrant crisis emerged in recent days after some Balkan nations began to impose their own border controls in the face of continued inaction by the European Union.
EU ministers gathered in Brussels on Thursday to discuss how each country was responding to the crisis and attempted to forge a cohesive path forward.
But the lack of unified action has exacerbated existing divisions between member states and threatens to do irreparable damage to the future cohesiveness of the 28-member bloc.
“Right now the unity of the union and lives, human lives, are at stake,” said European Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos, who is from Greece, as he entered the Brussels meeting. “This is a moment of great responsibility.”
Afghan migrants are the main casualty of the new border controls.
Macedonia, bordering Greece and used as a pathway to Northern Europe, declared Sunday that it would allow only refugees from Iraq and Syria to pass through.
At least 5,000 refugees from Afghanistan have become stuck at the border and at least 2,000 were put on buses bound for Athens.
As European countries have been under more pressure to accept Iraqi and Syrian refugees because of the conflict involving Islamic State, some governments have begun to classify people from other countries — including Afghans, who make up one-third of asylum seekers in Europe — as economic migrants, meaning they cannot gain political asylum.
Afghans say that they are fleeing violence in their country and that the European policies are discriminatory.
Nasim Lomani, who works for a Greek organization providing social services to refugees, said Afghans found themselves rushed onto buses with no information about the conditions they would be returning to in Greece.
“They were separated from the Iraqis and Syrians, then quickly forced onto the buses,” Lomani said. “Everyone was afraid that they would be put in detention.”
The Macedonian decision followed announcements last week by Austria and Slovenia that they would cap the number of migrants allowed in daily. Austria hosted a meeting with Balkan countries in its capital, Vienna, on Wednesday to discuss how to stem the seemingly endless flow of people.
Greece expressed outrage at not being invited to the talks and withdrew its ambassador from Vienna in response.
In a statement, Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias said the decision was made “in order to safeguard the friendly relations between the states and the people of Greece and Austria,” but it appeared to have an opposite, chilling effect.
Tensions are mounting across Europe more generally, which is putting new strain on the already fraught relations between members of the EU, which has been reeling from crisis to crisis for months.
Just last week, Europe’s leaders were gathering around conference tables late into the night securing a deal that gave key concessions to Britain ahead of a June referendum on its EU membership.
Now they have the migrant crisis to deal with and no more time for indecision.
As the winter chill begins to thaw, there are renewed concerns about how many people will attempt to make the crossing into Europe from war-torn countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
Already this year, more than 100,000 migrants have made the perilous journey and at least 400 have died, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Even for migrants who have already made it to some of the wealthier, Northern European countries, life is becoming more fraught.
A French court Thursday said the so-called Jungle camp in Calais, home to thousands of migrants who hope to come to Britain, could be razed.
In anticipation, Belgium introduced checks and 290 extra police officers along its western border with France out of fear that many of those displaced from the sprawling slum will attempt to relocate there.
Austria announced last week that it would limit the number of people entering to 3,200 a day and accept only 80 new asylum seeker applications each day.
Slovenia said it would introduce its own quota.
Germany, which registered 1.1 million asylum seekers last year, is facing pressure to reduce the numbers of new arrivals. It has introduced measures to speed up the time spent processing claims from migrants who are unlikely to get asylum.
“These newest restrictive measures risk violating EU law and undermine efforts for a comprehensive and coordinated approach to deal with the refugee and migrant crisis in Europe,” the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said in a statement.
Greece has not taken kindly to the tightening of borders and has threatened to block all EU decisions at a summit next month if countries do not accept their allocated quota.
In September, the EU announced plans to relocate 120,000 migrants from Greece, Italy and Hungary in addition to the 40,000 it pledged to relocate from Greece and Italy in May.
In reality, barely 600 have been relocated and fewer than 5,000 places have been offered.
Since Sunday, Greek authorities have established four camps to accommodate those turned away from the Macedonian border, most of whom are Afghans.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras alluded to the burden placed on his country when he tweeted that the European Union must treat the refugee crisis as an international problem, saying, “Greece will not accept unilateral actions.”
In the final months of 2015, as more than 200,000 Afghans crossed into Europe by sea, Victoria Square Park in central Athens was mainly a way station for refugees looking to enter Macedonia.
At the time, local tour agencies marketed “luxury buses” that for about $30 would transport them to the Macedonian border.
Now the situation in the park resembles the years before Europe’s refugee crisis, when Afghans would spend months or years trying to leave Greece — sometimes by hiding in the backs of freezer trucks — to seek asylum in the more prosperous economies of Northern Europe.
In those years, Greece became a haven for human smugglers as Afghans struggled to find a path to a country that would accept them.
With Europe increasingly closed off, more Afghan refugees could end up in Turkey, where tens of thousands already live illegally because the Turkish government does not recognize new asylum seekers or maintain refugee camps.
The camps in Greece are temporary and refugees are supposed to stay for only four days, during which they are expected to be registered and classified as either a refugee or economic migrant.
Aid workers and former refugees say that process is likely to take much longer. “There’s no way the registration and initial assessments can be made in four days’ time,” said Arash Bayat, who works as a translator and advisor to Afghan refugees.
Special correspondents Latifi and Boyle reported from Kabul, Afghanistan, and London, respectively.
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