Idomeni (Greece), Feb 23: Thousands of migrants were left stranded in Greece after Macedonia abruptly closed its border to Afghans, creating a fresh bottleneck as European countries scrambled to respond to the continent's refugee crisis.
About 8,000 people were trapped on Greece's northern frontier and at the port of Piraeus after Macedonia introduced the measure on Sunday, following decisions by countries further up the migrant route to turn back groups of Afghans.
Yesterday afternoon, Macedonia suspended all migrant crossings as tensions rose at the border, where hundreds of Afghans staged a sit-down protest in an area of no-man's land and occupied the railway line connecting the two countries.
Desperate to get through, they held signs that read: "We can't go back" and "Why racism?", while dozens of Afghan children also carried signs with the words: "Help us cross border".
A statement from Macedonia's police said they were restricting Afghans "because Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia decided to reduce their number".
More than 600 Afghan refugees have been sent back to Macedonia in recent days, the statement said. "We can't allow Macedonia to become a buffer zone and refugee camp," said a foreign ministry official, declining to be named.
Greece, which lies on the frontline of Europe's worst refugee crisis since World War II, said it would provide emergency shelter for the blocked migrants while working to find a solution with non-European Union member Macedonia.
Since November, countries on the Balkan route have allowed only Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans to continue their journey up towards Germany, Sweden and other European nations where they plan to apply for asylum.
Macedonia's decision to stop letting Afghans through came just two days after Austria controversially introduced a daily limit on asylum applications. "We cannot go back. We will either die here or go on," said 20-year-old Afghan Mohamed Asif on the Greek side of the border.