Europe refugee crisis: Scores return to watery tent city on Greek-Macedonian border

Macedonia sent back hundreds of refugees to Greece on Tuesday, a day after they bypassed a border fence in a mass push to continue their journey north to Europe's prosperous heartland — a move Greece blamed on "criminal misinformation" possibly spread by volunteers working with them.

Some migrants said they were beaten and attacked with stun guns by Macedonian forces

A migrant pauses on the road north of Idomeni, Greece, after being turned back by Macedonian authorities on Tuesday. Hundreds of migrants and refugees walked out Monday of an overcrowded camp on the Greek-Macedonian border Monday, determined to use a dangerous crossing to head north but were returned to Greece. (Vadim Ghirda/Associated Press)

Macedonia pushed hundreds of refugees back into Greece on Tuesday, a day after they had forded a swollen stream and bypassed a border fence in a mass attempt to continue their journey north to Western Europe. Some came back bloody and bruised, saying they were beaten by Macedonian forces.

About 1,500 people, frustrated at being stuck for weeks in a waterlogged tent city outside the closed border crossing of Idomeni, trekked into Macedonia on Monday through an unguarded section of the border near the Greek village of Hamilo.

Interior Ministry spokesperson Toni Angelovski told The Associated Press on Tuesday the migrants "have been returned to Greece" but did not elaborate.

A Macedonian official said 700 migrants who had been detained overnight were returned to Greece through the same location they entered. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter, also said about 50 journalists and volunteers detained with the migrants were released after paying fines of 250 euros (about $370) for illegally entering Macedonia.

Greek police said groups of migrants were seen coming back from unguarded sections of the border east and west of Idomeni — although Greece says it received no official notification or repatriation request from Macedonia. A spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency in Idomeni, Babar Baloch, confirmed that many had returned to Idomeni.

But some migrants interviewed by AP said they were beaten and attacked with stun guns by Macedonian forces, who drove them in military vehicles back to unguarded sections of the border and pushed them through.

'Surrounded' by soldiers

"We were surrounded by Macedonian soldiers, who hit many of us," said Syrian Molham al-Masri, 21. "They hit me with a baton. Others were hit with Tasers."

Afghan Ghulam Haidar, 35, had a badly bruised face and blood on his clothes. He said he was sitting beside a camp fire with his wife and five-year-old son inside Macedonia when Macedonian police caught them and told them to get up.

"I had a bag on my shoulder and had difficulty getting up," he said. "As I was at it, a policeman took a stick out of the fire and hit me in the face. They hit my arm too, but luckily left my wife and child alone."

Asked for an explanation, Macedonian Interior Ministry spokeswoman Natalija Spirova Kordikj demanded proof of the reported attacks.

"Can they prove their claims?" Spirova said. "Did they report that to anybody? If not, that would be only speculation that we strongly reject."

Despite repeated Greek appeals to move to organized shelters elsewhere, about 14,000 people are stuck in the Idomeni tent city in swampy conditions after days of heavy rain. Hundreds were queuing under a shelter Tuesday for food handouts.

Macedonian soldiers escort migrants who have crossed the border illegally from Greece, into army trucks in the village of Moini, Macedonia on Monday. (Ognen Teofilovski/Reuters)

"As long as (refugees) still believe that there is a chance of getting through (to Macedonia), this will continue," Immigration Minister Ioannis Mouzalas said. "There is no way the border will open."

For months, hundreds of thousands of people from the Middle East and Africa flowed through Idomeni on their way to seek asylum in central Europe. But a tightening in border controls that started in Austria and extended down the Balkan migration route ended in a total border closure last week. Now, about 44,000 people are stranded in Greece after crossing from nearby Turkey in flimsy smugglers' boats.

'Tragic, unacceptable' conditions

The European Union's commissioner for migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos — a Greek politician — visited Idomeni on Tuesday and deplored the "tragic, unacceptable" conditions he saw.

"This tests the principles and values of the civilized world, and Europe," he said. "This situation must end immediately."

Avramopoulos also appealed to EU countries to honour the bloc's commitments to share the burden of caring for asylum-seekers.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras blamed Monday's mass border move on misleading leaflets distributed at Idomeni, "perhaps by groups that call themselves volunteers." He said the leaflets advised migrants to cross the border by bypassing the fence and warned that migrants left Idomeni for other shelters in northern Greece, they would be imprisoned there.

"This is criminal behaviour toward people who face great hardship," Tsipras said. "This must stop."

Greek police were investigating the incident.

Tsipras urged the refugees to leave Idomeni for the shelters.

Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Poposki said only a "united and humane" response from the European Union can solve the continent's migration problem.

"More migrants in deteriorating tent cities at the border only encourages (people) smuggling," Poposki said.


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