Balkan border controls leave thousands stranded in Greece

THESSALONIKI, Greece -- Some 400 migrants from Syria and Iraq demanded to leave a transit camp in northern Greece Thursday and have begun a 70-kilometre trek walking to the country's border with Macedonia.

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Police said the migrants, mostly from Syria, walked out of the newly built camp near Greece's second largest city, Thessaloniki, and were on a highway near the city.

It was yet another sign of trouble in Greece as it scrambles to cope with border restrictions imposed recently by Austria and Balkan countries -- while some 4,000 migrants and refugees continue to arrive on Greek territory daily.

The Greek government underlined its annoyance Thursday by recalling its ambassador to Austria for consultations -- "in order to safeguard friendly relations" between the two states, said Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias.

Greece does not detain people entering the country illegally if they are from Syria, Iraq and several other countries considered eligible for asylum.

Refugees and migrants arriving at the mainland port of Piraeus, near Athens, would usually take buses or trains straight to Idomeni on the border with Macedonia.

But the clampdown has led to massive crowds on the border: about 2,800 people were there Thursday and only 100 were allowed to cross in the morning.

Authorities said 40 buses were stopped at various points along the country's main 500-kilometre highway leading north from Athens. Traffic has also been slowed by tractor blockades by farmers protesting bailout measures.

"It took me 20 hours to get here. The police kept stopping us, but I couldn't wait." said 23-year-old Syrian university student Walaa Jbara, speaking near the border and clutching his smartphone.

"I'm checking the news on Facebook, and I know the Macedonians are not letting people through."

Greece as well as international aid agencies have strongly criticized Austria and Balkan counties for the new transit rules.

"All it will do is exacerbate an already grave humanitarian crisis and put the most vulnerable at increased risk," said Kirk Day of the New York-based International Rescue Committee.

Nadica V'ckova, a spokeswomen for Macedonia's crisis management department, told the AP that the country was restricting entry of migrants to match the number leaving the country.

Testorides reported from Skopje, Macedonia. Elena Becatoros and Derek Gatopoulos in Athens contributed.


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