IDOMENI, Greece – Desperate migrants and refugees piled up Thursday in fetid fields of mud at a closed border crossing as officials warned that a well-trodden route to Europe used by hundreds of thousands in the past year was no longer available.
With the closure of the migrant trail through the Balkans from Greece to more prosperous countries, concern also mounted that people desperate for sanctuary or jobs in Europe are already turning to smugglers to find other pathways.
Government ministers and experts say that Albania, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania could become alternate tracks, and officials in Spain are in contact with Algeria and Morocco to try to stop new routes from opening there. At the same time, the flow continued to the Greek islands by boat from Turkey, those who have not heard the Greece-Macedonia crossings are no longer open or who hope the closure is temporary.
Some didn’t make it. Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency said five people, including a 3-month-old, drowned when their speedboat sank Thursday off Turkey’s western coast en route to the Greek island of Lesbos. Nine people were rescued from the boat, which was carrying Afghans and Iranians, the agency said.
NATO stepped up its operations to try to stop the smugglers, deploying five ships in the Aegean Sea, with plans to send more in the coming days to monitor the area near Lesbos and areas farther south, said Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary-general of the alliance.
Nearly 42,000 people are stranded in Greece, including 14,000 camped in the mud near the Idomeni crossing with Macedonia. Nearly three days of rain finally ended, but that did little to lift the misery for those staying in donated pup tents in nearby fields and along railway tracks.
Long lines formed for sandwiches, tea and soup at the Idomeni camp, which long ago surpassed its capacity.
Almaz Moho, a Syrian Kurd who traveled from Aleppo with her three daughters, one of them an infant born in Istanbul, said they came to Idomeni “because they said the borders are open,” but found out otherwise.
As European Union interior ministers met in Brussels on the crisis, Austria urged migrants to give up hope of moving on.
“The Balkan route is closed,” Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner told reporters. “The biggest problem is that these refugees still have hopes and expectations, and these hopes are being constantly fed.”
More than 1 million people have come to Europe in the past year, most of them by boat from Turkey to Greece, fleeing war, persecution or abysmal poverty. Once taken to the Greek mainland from their island arrival points, most headed to the Macedonian border, then on to Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia, before moving on to Austria and other prosperous EU nations.
Passage through those nations began being restricted last month, and on Monday, countries along the Balkan route decided to allow entry only to people with valid EU visas. But even as those countries shut their borders, others braced for an influx of people taking alternate routes – and risking new dangers.
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