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Exhausted migrants enter Serbia

August 24, 2015

Thousands of migrants have crossed from Macedonia into Serbia as they try to reach the European Union. Aid organizations are warning of a bottleneck as Hungary rushes to close its border to keep the refugees out.

Refugees in Serbia DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty Images
Image: Getty Images/AFP/D. Dilkoff

The wave of migrants, many of them fleeing the conflict in Syria, crossed on foot into Serbia on Monday after Macedonia decided on the weekend to lift the blockade of its border with Greece.

This followed chaotic scenes when thousands of refugees stormed past Macedonian police trying to prevent them from getting over the frontier.

Macedonia transported many of the migrants through its territory by train and bus to the Serbian border, where they were able to walk into the neighboring country.

Nearly 10,000 refugees already entered Serbia over the weekend, while hundreds more entered Macedonia from Greece on Monday, confronting the impoverished Balkan countries with huge logistical challenges in coping with the human wave.

Macedonian police finally yielded to the crush at the borderImage: picture-alliance/dpa/G. Licovski

State authorities and aid agencies have been putting up tents and attempting to supply food and water to the crowds of migrants wanting to cross through the western Balkans to reach the EU country of Hungary as a gateway to richer northern European countries.

In Serbia, Red Cross official Ahmet Halimi said 8,000 migrants had registered at a reception center in the southern town of Presevo, five kilometers (three miles) from the border to Macedonia, in the past 24 hours.

At the center, many received medical aid, food and papers legalizing their transit through the country. Reuters news agency also reported that buses were waiting there to take the migrants north, with a one-way ticket costing 25 euros ($29).

Anti-refugee fence

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said on Monday that Serbia would not "build walls or put them (migrants) in containers and drive them out of the country," despite the "huge" influx.

His words contrast with Hungary's efforts to complete a 175-kilometer (109-mile) fence along its border to Serbia in a bid to keep the migrants out, even though the EU country is likely to be only a staging post on the way to destinations such as Germany and Sweden.

Aid agencies have warned that Hungary's action could cause a catastrophic pile-up in Serbia, which is ill-equipped to deal with the problem posed by thousands of homeless.

'Humanitarian disaster for all of EU'

On a visit to Macedonia on Monday, Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz called for concerted action to cope with the wave of migrants arriving in Europe from the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

"This is a humanitarian disaster. This is a real disaster for the whole European Union, and I think there is the real need to have more focus on this problem, not only on the route through Italy but also on the route to the western Balkans," Kurz said.

Kurz also criticized Greece, which is bearing the brunt of migrant arrivals, for failing to process asylum requests on Greek soil as required by EU rules, which stipulate that asylum applications must be made and processed in the country of arrival.

Griechenland Kos Flüchtlinge Ankunft
Many migrants have risked their lives crossing the Mediterranean.Image: Getty Images/AFP/L. Gouliamaki

"It is not just a case of Greece not processing those (asylum) claims, but they are actively doing their very best to get the refugees to move on to central Europe as soon as possible," he added.

Greece, which is undergoing one of the worst economic crises of modern times, has been transporting thousands of refugees from islands where they have landed to the mainland by car ferry. On Monday, the government carried 2,500 people, mainly Syrians, to Athens, where buses were waiting to take them further north.

The UN's refugee agency UNHCR has urged the EU to do more to help the refugees, with its European Bureau Director Vincent Cochetel saying that the problem "will not go away anytime soon and affects all of Europe."

Germany is expecting a record 750,000 asylum-seekers to arrive this year.

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tj/jil (Reuters, AP)