Thousands of migrants cross Macedonia, Serbia heading for EU

PRESEVO, Serbia – Thousands of migrants, most of them Syrian refugees, were marching through Macedonia and Serbia on Sunday, August 23, in a bid to reach the European Union (EU) after being stranded for days on the Greek border.

The mass movement came after Macedonia police on Saturday, August 22, reopened the country's southern frontier, enabling thousands to travel north towards Serbia from which they seek to enter the EU.

The border was opened after dramatic scenes on Saturday in which hundreds of refugees forced their way through the barbed wire fences, many carrying small children, as police hurled stun grenades to try and stop them. 

Macedonia had on Thursday, August 19, declared a state of emergency and sealed off its southern border in a bid to halt the influx, leaving thousands stranded in no-man's land. 

But on Saturday night, it lifted the restrictions.

By mid-Sunday, more than 6,000 refugees and migrants had crossed into Serbia where 8 huge UN refugee agency tents were set up in the border village of Miratovac, providing food and shelter from the chilly weather, Amet Alimi, president of Presevo Red Cross, told Agence France-Presse (AFP).

"We have worked all night to admit them. There is a flow of people who keep coming," he said.

People were visibly exhausted and many asked for medical aid. There were many children and pregnant women among them, an AFP photographer said.

They were then being bussed to the nearby town of Presevo where police handed out documents and helped them take buses to the border with Hungary, an EU member state.

Crossing freely

In Gevgelija on Macedonia's southern border with Greece refugees and migrants keep coming in groups of few hundreds at a time. 

"Since early morning, more than 500 people have crossed the border," a Greek policeman at the frontier told AFP shortly before noon (1000 GMT).

More than 400 were in no-man's land, patiently waiting to be allowed in, an AFP reporter said.

Rostom Mohamed arrived in Greece after travelling from Iraq with his wife and 3 children. He said they had paid 4,000 euros ($4,550) to smugglers for a boat transport from Turkey to Greece, adding that "3 people died on the way."

"I want to go to Germany for work. I want to be safe and live like a human being. That's why I choose to come to Europe," he said, as his family was waiting to enter Macedonia and continue northwards to the EU.

Police had previously said they would only admit "a limited number" of people but they were not making any attempt to stop those crossing, the correspondents said. 

Late on Saturday, more than 1,500 people who had been stranded in no-man's land for 3 days were allowed to cross into Macedonia, joining thousands who had managed to break through the police cordon or who sneaked in through the forested hills. 

They then headed for Macedonia's northern border with Serbia, travelling the 180-kilometer (110-mile) journey in buses, taxis and trains, local media reported. 

Until this weekend, more than 42,000 people, including more than 7,000 children, entered Macedonia from Greece since mid-June, the government in Skopje said.

Once they reach Serbia, many try to make their way to Hungary, which is a major crossing point into the EU, although the country is building a 4-meter (13-foot) barbed wire fence along its 175-kilometer border to stop the influx

Europe's 'soul' at stake 

Europe is currently struggling with a huge influx of migrants in what the EU has described as its worst refugee crisis since World War II.

Official figures show a record 107,500 migrants crossed into the EU in July in a figure which looks set to increase. 

In Rome, Italian officials said the coastguard had rescued 4,400 migrants from 22 boats in the Mediterranean on Saturday in what was understood to be the highest daily figure in years. 

The number raises to more than 108,000 the number that have arrived in Italy alone in 2015, prompting Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni to warn that the deepening immigration crisis could pose a major threat to the "soul" of Europe.

"On immigration, Europe is in danger of displaying the worst of itself: selfishness, haphazard decision-making and rows between member states," Gentiloni told Il Messaggero.

"I am very worried. Today it is on this issue that Europe will either rediscover its soul or lose it for good."

And in Germany, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier issued a joint call for Europe to "fairly" share out the refugees in an article published in Sunday's Frankfurter Allgemeine.

They also called for a "European asylum code" that would guarantee bloc-wide asylum status. – Sasa Djordjevic with Jasmina Mironski in Gevgelija, AFP/Rappler.com