Ignoring warnings that their hopes for quick access to a better life in Europe were in vain, migrants gathered on Turkish beaches and piled into boats Thursday for the risky crossing to Greece. Five, including an infant, drowned in the attempt.
Those who did reach Greece faced an uncertain future. Already tens of thousands are stranded in the country, with many camped in muddy fields with only sporadic access to humanitarian aid. And with the Greek-Macedonian border closed they have no hope, at least for now, to embark on the so-called West Balkan route northward which had been the path for those wanting to resettle in the EU's more prosperous nations.
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As EU interior ministers met in Brussels on the crisis, Austria urged migrants to give up hope of moving on. "The Balkan route is closed," 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 migrants have come to Europe in the past year, most of them to Greece by boats from Turkey, where millions fleeing war, persecution or abysmal poverty have gathered. Once bused to the Greek mainland from their island arrival points, most headed to the border with Macedonia, and then onward to Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, the entry point to Austria and other prosperous EU nations.
Passage through those countries began being restricted last month. On Monday, countries along the Balkan route decided to allow through only people with valid EU visas.
Nearly 42,000 people are now stranded in Greece, including some 14,000 people camped out near the crossing, many in pup tents. Torrential rain has added to the desperate conditions at the site, with tents sinking in mud and soaked firewood making it impossible to start camp fires.
Government health experts at the camp say there is no sign yet of an infectious disease outbreak, but have been urging refugees at Idomeni to move to nearby army-built shelters. Authorities say some 70 children at the camp have received hospital treatment over the past three days for fever and diarrhea.
EU and Turkish leaders agreed at a summit Monday to the broad outlines of a deal that would see migrants arriving in Greece having fled war or poverty would be sent back to Turkey unless they apply for asylum. For every migrant sent back, the EU would take in one Syrian refugee, thus trying to discourage people from setting set out on dangerous sea journeys, often arranged by unscrupulous smugglers.
In the latest deaths, Turkey's state-run Anadolu news agency said five migrants, including a 3-month-old baby, drowned when their speedboat sank Thursday off Turkey's western coast, on its way to the Greek island of Lesbos.
The agency said nine people were rescued from the boat carrying Afghan and Iranian migrants.