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Balkans: response to new border restrictions

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

In response to new border restrictions in the Balkans that have left thousands of vulnerable children stranded, Save the Children’s Regional Team Leader for the Balkans, Goran Bilic, said:

“With key borders now shut to Afghans, more lone children are stuck in limbo, forced to choose between spending what little money they have left on food or smugglers.

“European governments seem more interested in protecting borders than people. Children and their families arrive seeking international protection, and Europe’s response is to slam its door and build walls and fences. To continue with current policies is in full breach of the Refugee Convention and international human rights laws, which European countries themselves drafted and historically championed. The scenes of chaos and confusion we are seeing across the route are a sign of things to come if governments continue on this trajectory of deterrence and exclusionary policies.

“This crisis can only be mitigated when European governments put an end to the selective admission policies at their borders. People fleeing violence and persecution are legally entitled to a fair asylum process that is based on needs, not nationality. The EU needs to support Greece in its efforts to meet the needs of people in transit and seeking asylum, instead of scapegoating the country over the issue which is becoming a humanitarian disaster.”

Notes to Editors:

More than 7,000 people – including at least 2,500 children – are currently stuck at the Idomeni transit camp in Greece at the border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).

Families with children as young as a few weeks have been stuck at the Greek border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) for days. On Monday, 11 children and 16 adults from different nationalities were trapped between the Greece and FYROM border fences in the middle of the night, without food, water or shelter for at least 15 hours. Others in the camp broke through the fence in an attempt to cross to FYROM.

At the camp in Idomeni, which was built to host1,200 people, thousands of families are now sleeping on blankets in the muddy fields surrounding the camp, and burning plastic, clothes and trash to stay warm at night. Portable bathrooms are overcrowded, and aid agencies are struggling to provide enough food and shelter for everyone. Most organisations and volunteer groups are operating through the night as people continue to arrive, exhausted and in need of food, water, and a place to sleep.

Over the past ten days, Serbia officially closed its border with Bulgaria as the Minister of Social Welfare stated that the route from FYROM is now the only legal route into the country. Hungary closed three railway crossings with Croatia to prevent having migrants sent back from Croatia. Austria is fortifying its borders and introducing 12 new checkpoints along the borders with neighbouring countries. On February 24, Germany chartered a special flight to deport 125 Afghans back to Kabul, in an attempt to deter other people from coming.

Nearly 12,000 people are stranded across Greece, as boats continue to arrive to the islands carrying an average of 1,500-2,000 people per day. On Thursday, two young men unable to leave Greece attempted suicide in the city’s main square, in front of hundreds of others migrants and refugees stuck there – both survived. In the same square in Athens, a group of Afghans are now staging a hunger strike protesting Europe’s discriminatory border policies.

The Government of Greece estimates that 70,000 people could be left stranded in Greece as a result of border restrictions in all transit and destination countries. Greece is now considering enlisting the help of the army to deal with the situation it is facing.

The backlog of people en route to the border with FYROM means that children and their families are now stranded in Greece, including Athens’ seaport and in the city’s overcrowded reception sites, in substandard conditions. They are also stuck on the road to the border for days on end without food, shelter or basic sanitation services. Smugglers are capitalizing on the lack of information, frustration, and confusion by offering risky, but quick, alternative routes.

The asylum system in Greece is weak and integration programmes are severely limited as a result of the weakened social welfare system after the economic crisis.

Last week in Serbia, Save the Children teams met unaccompanied children from North Africa, still trying to cross to Croatia, after multiple failed attempts.

At the Croatian border, a group of Afghans reportedly jumped off a moving bus last week, when they found out it was taking them back to FYROM. About 200 people then attempted to continue to Croatia on foot.

For interviews and more information, contact the Save the Children press office at +44(0)207 012 6841 or +447831 650 409