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Interview: Border restrictions on Balkan route increase risk of refugee abuse: MSF official

by Alessandra Cardone

ROME, Feb. 29 (Xinhua) -- As the number of people stuck in Greece keeps swelling up, arbitrary border restrictions on the Western Balkans migrant route are dramatically affecting refugees, increasing the risk of abuse, according to a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) official here on Monday.

"The restrictions are having dramatic effects on people on the (Balkan) route," Louise Roland-Gosselin of MSF's advocacy support task force on refugees told Xinhua in an interview.

"Since border closures were put in place, there has been no clear information of what is going to happen within a week, or a month. This makes it extremely difficult for humanitarian operators to assess the situation and plan their activity according to the people's needs."

Several MSF teams deployed along the Balkan route are trying to provide health care assistance, food, and shelter to the migrants, especially at the borders of Greece, Macedonia, Slovenia, Croatia, and Bulgaria, according to the humanitarian organization.

"Over 200 professionals are working between Greece and Macedonia," Roland-Gosselin said.

The first border restrictions on the Balkan route were put in place in the second half of 2015 and, since then, the situation has deteriorated, according to MSF.

In November, the movement of people was further limited to Syrian, Iraqi, and Afghani nationals. Yet, "European countries on the (Balkan) route continue to invent new and arbitrary criteria, with the sole goal of reducing the inflow at any cost and in complete disregard of humanitarian needs," the group said in a recent statement.

Austria, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, and Macedonia further increased border restrictions on Feb. 21, denying Afghanis permission to cross.

The lack of a comprehensive strategy from the European Union (EU), plus random national border closures would be putting the life of thousands of men, women, and children even more at risk.

"One country's border restriction has an immediate domino effect in a matter of just few hours," Roland-Gosselin explained.

For example, when Austria decided to limit the entry of refugees at its borders (in January), the decision rebounded on all people who were trying to cross the other borders along the Balkan route, the MSF officer added.

"A lot of people suddenly found themselves unable to move, with no information, and little or no assistance at all."

An already vulnerable population is thus facing chaos, uncertainty, and an increased risk of discrimination, she said.

"At the moment, we have at least 3,000 people waiting in the Greek camp in Idomeni (near the border with Macedonia), and several hundreds more are stranded around the camp," Roland-Gosselin said.

At least 5,000 people are also stuck in Athens, since they reached Idomeni from the Greek islands but were sent back because the camp was full and the border closed.

"Considering 1,000 to 2,000 people per day arrive in Greece on average, we can see what a huge backlog border restrictions are producing."

The burden weighing on Greece is becoming overwhelming, and the small country "risks turning into a big open detention center," Roland-Gosselin also pointed out.

Some 22,000 migrants and refugees are currently estimated to be in Greece, and such a figure may swell to up to 50,000 to 70,000 in March if people continue to remain "trapped in Greece," Greek migration minister Yiannis Mouzalas said on Sunday.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) confirmed 19,569 migrants and refugees were in Greece between Feb. 18 and 25, and 33,815 travelled the Western Balkans route in the same week.

On Monday, hundreds of frustrated Syrians and Iraqis in Idomeni staged an angry protest, demanding Macedonia open the border, according to local media and volunteer groups.

They tried to break down a gate at the crossing point, and Macedonian police pushed them back using tear gas.

MSF teams on the ground said they treated 15 people, including nine children, for exposure to the gas.

"We have seen this (scene) already... When borders are closed, migrants and refugees are more exposed to abuse and violence, also from border authorities," Roland-Gosselin said.

"Furthermore, if people continue to arrive but cannot pass legally, they will increasingly resort to smugglers. This also raises the risks for them."

Finally, the MSF officer said more and more women and children seemed to be on the Balkan route in this chaotic situation.

"We cannot verify the reason for this trend. Yet, we have been told many of these families, and especially the Afghanis, were those waiting (home) for their husbands to reach Europe, and ask for family reunification," Roland-Gosselin said.

With Europe closing its legal routes to entry, these women and children likely "had no more hope in a legal passage, and took to the sea," he added.

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