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Shock after Macedonia's Idomeni tear gas attack

April 11, 2016

The UN refugee agency has condemned Macedonia's use of tear gas on refugees at its border with Greece. Fresh protests have broken out at the Idomeni crossing.

Image: Reuters/A.Avramidis

The UNHCR has condemned the actions of Macedonian police, who reportedly fired tear gas and rubber bullets at crowds on Greece's side of the border Sunday. Up to 12,000 refugees have slept in huts or in the open at the Idomeni crossing since February, when several Balkan nations shut their borders to them and cut off their route northward into Europe.

"Time and again in recent months, we have seen tension unfolding at various European borders, between security forces on the one hand and people fleeing war and in need of help on the other," UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said Monday. "Harm is done to perceptions of refugees and to Europe's image alike," he added. "Everyone loses."

On Sunday, DW correspondent Marianna Karakoulaki reported tear gas clouds spreading through the refugee camp and neighboring village of Idomeni. She wrote that the Macedonian police deployed the tear gas for over two hours and even threw stones and later fired water cannons and rubber bullets as people fainted and volunteers and activists rushed to get them out of the conflict zone and provide first aid. By early evening, Doctors Without Borders had reported treating at least 300 people for tear gas and trauma.

"Do you see this?" a refugee watching the clashes said. "This is like Palestine, Gaza."

'A great shame'

On Monday, Greece's government announced that it had lodged two "very strong protests" with Macedonia. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras added his own outrage over Macedonia's response to "people who did not constitute a threat and were not armed," calling it "a great shame for European society and a country that wants to be a part of it."

Greece has attempted to block its neighbor's path to EU membership because of a dispute over the name Macedonia, which happens to be that of the northern Hellenic province where Thessaloniki is located. Officials have insisted that the international community refer to the nation as the "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia," or FYROM, though that moniker hasn't widely caught on outside of Athens.

For their part, Macedonian officials have accused nongovernmental organizations of inciting refugees on Greece's side of the border. On Monday, Macedonia's Interior Ministry issued a statement claiming that about 3,000 people had taken part in Sunday's unrest and 23 police officers had sustained injuries. Macedonian officials have denied the witness reports of stun grenades and rubber bullets, though Doctors Without Borders reported treating at least 30 people for wounds caused by the projectiles.

The camp at Idomeni began as a temporary measure for to house up to 2,000 refugees at a time as they passed through Greece en route to northern EU countries via Macedonia and Serbia. Though the number of the people at the camp has increased beyond imagination and capacity since Macedonia closed the border, the number of arrivals has begun to slow following the implementation of a controversial deal between the European Union and Turkey.

mkg/kms (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)