Tension peaks in Italy and Macedonia over migrant crisis: Who is helping?

Macedonia closed its border to Greece, leaving thousands stranded, on the same day Italy reported rescuing a record-setting number of migrants from the sea off Libya.

Alexandros Avramidis/Reuters
Migrants walk along the railway and past Macedonian police special forces as they are about to cross the border from Greece into Macedonia, near the village of Idomeni, on August 23, 2015. More than 5,000 migrants crossed into Serbia on Sunday, resuming a journey to western Europe after an overwhelmed Macedonia gave up its attempts to stem the flow of mainly Syrian refugees by force.

A standoff between Macedonian police and migrants subsided on Sunday, with thousands of men, women, and children boarding trains bound north for Serbia, after the nation just north of Greece reopened its border.

The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia declared a state of emergency on Thursday, and ordered its borders closed to migrants fleeing conflict and political unrest. Police, backed up by armored vehicles, spread coils of razor wire over rail tracks used by migrants to cross on foot from Greece into Macedonia, the Associated Press reports.

Almost 39,000 migrants, most of them Syrians, have registered while passing through Macedonia over the past month, double the number from the month before, according to the AP.

Greek authorities reported eight injuries as a result of the tumult. The AP reports at least one child was injured by what appeared to be shrapnel from the stun grenades that were fired directly into the crowd to keep people from charging the border.

A break came Saturday, when thousands of migrants were able to run past the officers and into Macedonian territory after days spent in the open without access to shelter, food, or water.

Authorities subsequently lifted the restrictions and allowed migrants to cross freely, allowing them to board trains Sunday without conflict.

The turmoil at the Macedonian border coincides with reports from Italy's coast guard about the rescue of some 4,400 migrants in a single day, a record-setting number, as smugglers took advantage of ideal sea conditions off Libya to launch a fleet of overcrowded, unseaworthy boats, the AP reports.

The coast guard on Sunday said it carried out 22 rescue operations the previous day, with help from Norwegian and Irish vessels, which provided help to motorized rubber dinghies and fishing boats, all brimming with people trying to reach Europe.

So far this year, some 110,000 migrants have been rescued off Libya and brought to southern Italian ports, the AP reports.

On land, the so-called Balkan corridor had been penetrable from Greece into Macedonia, with limited patrols on either side. Closing it off disrupted the route of masses of migrants who begin in Turkey, take boats to Greece or walk into Bulgaria, then make their way through Macedonia and Serbia before heading farther north.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres spoke with FYR Macedonia Foreign Minister Nikola Poposki about the situation, and received assurances that the border will not be closed in the future.

The agency said it encouraged the government to work with UNHCR to establish sufficient reception capacity in the country as well as organized registration and identification. The Christian Science Monitor previously reported contributions from UNHCR and the Red Cross, as well as grassroots support from Macedonian citizens who have turned out along the 30-mile border to provide aid.

“The Red Cross has mobile medical teams in Tabanovce and Gevgelija and has provided a small amount of food, water, and packs of hygiene items, and the UNHCR is installing toilets in both locations, and has funded data entry clerks to work with police to speed up the registration of refugees and migrants, and a team that will provide psychological support. The agency also facilitated coordination meetings between the volunteers, organizations, and government entities working on the issue.

But the activists say those efforts are not enough amid a flood of arrivals, and they are working overtime to meet the needs. [Head of a civil society organization, Jasmin] Redzepi says volunteers have given out more than 70,000 meals since April, along with items like shoes, clothes, and baby wipes, though their donations have started to wane.”

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