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Balkan countries implement tighter border restrictions

The U.N. refugee agency says three Balkan countries have shut their borders for migrants from states that are not directly engulfed in wars. Hundreds of thousands of people pass through the Balkan route to reach Germany.

Serbia, Macedonia and Croatia have started restricting access to migrants on the Balkan route to Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans. The three countries on the Balkan route are not a part of the EU border-free Schengen zone.

"They are now stopping all who cannot identify themselves as refugees coming from these three countries affected by violence," said Melita Sunjic, a spokeswoman for the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR in Serbia. Sunjic added that the border restrictions were changed overnight as a part of a joint effort to reduce the number of asylum seekers streaming into the European Union.

There was concern in transit nations such as Serbia that a decision by Germany and other destination countries in the west may cause a massive backlog of stranded migrants and refugees.

"We cannot allow anyone to enter the country who will not be able to continue," Serbian Welfare Minister Aleksandar Vulin said Thursday, explaining the new rules.

Sunjic said that Serbia has already turned back some 200 migrants to Macedonia, but the country has not let them in.

Karte Neue Balkan Fluchtroute Englisch

Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia are transit countries for many refugees on their way to western Europe.

The UNHCR says Macedonia has begun allowing only people from these three countries to cross its southern border from Greece, while Greek authorities say migrants of other nationalities are gathering on the Greek side of the border and blocking the crossing completely.

Aleksandra Kraus, a UNHCR spokeswoman in Macedonia, said Thursday that Macedonian authorities had begun allowing only people from warzones to enter the country because Serbian authorities had imposed the same criteria on those attempting to cross the Macedonian-Serbian border.

No other option

In the Greek border area of Idomeni, police said the border has essentially been shut to all since about 8 a.m. (0600 UTC) after a group of roughly 300 people, mostly from Iran, gathered at the crossing seeking also to be allowed through. A further 2,500 people are waiting in a camp set up nearby to provide shelter for those heading north through the Balkans.

On the Croatia-Serbia border, Croats are allowing in only people from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, plus Palestine.

Hundreds of thousands of people pass through the Balkan route, sailing from Turkey to the Greek Aegean islands, then crossing the mainland, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria. Many are fleeing violence in the Middle East, but others include economic migrants from Asian and African countries trying to reach western European nations.

The tougher controls over migrants crossing central Balkan countries were agreed to in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks last week.

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hf/jil (AP, dpa)

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