Balkan borders tighten, Greek islands to hold migrants

ATHENS, Greece -- Greece's government on Friday ordered authorities on islands near Turkey to restrict the number of migrants allowed to travel by ferry to the mainland, where thousands of people are stranded in increasingly desperate conditions following border closures in the countries to the north.

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Ferry companies and regional authorities were handed the instructions as the number of people stranded in Greece continues to rise, with thousands sleeping rough in parks and along the country's highways, and existing shelters filled to capacity.

In Athens, migrants staged peaceful protests, briefly blocking traffic at the country's main port in nearby Piraeus, while hundreds walked out of a transit camp and were heading by tram and on foot to join others at the port.

Merchant Marine Minister Theodoros Dritsas said up to two thirds of migrants arriving on Lesbos and other Greek islands would be held there until Sunday.

"The reason is that we need more time to prepare additional sites for temporary shelters," Dritsas said.

He said three chartered ferries would be used on islands to provide temporary shelter over the next three days.

About 2,000 people -- more than half from Syria and Iraq -- are arriving daily from Turkey using dinghies and small boats, but the number of people crossing into neighbouring Macedonia has dropped dramatically in the past week, and was down to just 150 on Thursday, according to Greek police figures.

By early afternoon Friday, not a single migrant had crossed into Macedonia, while some 4,500 people waited at a border camp and a nearby site, according to Greek police.

In Serbia, police said they been formally notified by Croatia and Slovenia that only 500 people per day would be accepted to cross the border northward.

Athens is blaming Austria -- a fellow member of Europe's passport-free Schengen Area -- the for the flare-up in the crisis after it imposed strict transit restrictions last week, controls that were also implemented by Balkan countries further back on the route.

Greece recalled its ambassador to Austria Thursday and rejected a request to visit Athens by Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner, government officials said.

Athens says it is unable to stop migrants crossing its sea borders without endangering their lives.

"The policies of Austria and Hungary are turning Greece into a giant refugee camp," deputy Education Minister Sia Anagnostoipoulou told state-run ERT television.

"What are we supposed to do: Let people drown in the Aegean Sea?" she said. "Instead of making a plan. Europe is burying its head in the sand ... Europe is unraveling."


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