Austria’s interior minister says the Balkan refugee route will remain closed permanently and that refugees should not be given false hope for passage.
Johanna Mikl-Leitner told reporters in Brussels on Thursday that “the most honest thing is to tell the refugees: it’s impossible to get through the Balkan route anymore. The Balkan route is closed.”
She said: “The biggest problem is that these refugees still have hopes and expectations, and these hopes are being constantly fed.”
Mikl-Leitner said it is important to warn that the Balkan refugee route into Europe is closed because, she added, “that way you do not feed any hopes and expectations”.
In recent months hundreds of thousands of people have travelled the route north from Greece hoping to settle in places like Germany or Scandinavia.
The booming fake passport market for refugees in Athens
Austria’s introduction of a refugee cap last month set off a chain reaction of border restrictions that has shut down the route.
Mikl-Leitner told German daily Die Welt ahead of a meeting on Thursday with her European Union counterparts: “The closure of the Balkan route is going to plan and this clock will not be turned back.”
Thousands of refugees are stranded in Greece as Macedonia is only allowing those in “proved need of protection” to cross the border.
Squalid conditions in Idomeni
In Idomeni, near the Greek-Macedonia border, people are stuck in squalid conditions. Aid workers are warning that infectious diseases could soon spread due to the unsanitary conditions in the makeshift camp.
People are huddling inside tents to get away from the rain as the ground has turned into mud.
To keep warm, refugees are burning what they can find, from wood to plastic bottles – sometimes releasing toxic fumes.
Lazmiya, a Syrian refugee who has been stuck at Idomeni for 15 days, said that when she set off from Damascus with her daughter, she thought that by now she would have reunited with her husband and two sons.
“I want to get out from here,” she told Al Jazeera. “I have not had a shower since I arrived. There is little assistance. All my clothes are soaked. look at the weather. We are dying here.”
Last year, nearly 1.3 million people applied for asylum in the European Union. That is more than double the number from 2014.
Most made the perilous crossing across the Aegean Sea from Turkey into Greece. More than 3,700 people died trying.
Leaders from Turkey and the European Union have now come up with a controversial new plan to try and stop the flow of refugees attempting to reach Europe.
Under the plan, refugees and migrants arriving illegally in Greece would be forced to return to Turkey. And for every person returned, an EU country would resettle a Syrian living in a camp there.
About 2.7 million refugees are living in camps in Turkey, and Ankara has spent $9bn to cope with the crisis.
The EU-Turkey deal has been widely condemned by rights groups and UN agencies, which say it would violate international law.
“An agreement that would be tantamount to a blanket return of any foreigners to a third country, is not consistent with European law, is not consistent with international law,” Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR’s Europe regional director, said.
The deal would not apply to refugees already on Greek islands but to those who arrive once the agreement is in effect, Anadolu Agency quoted EU Affairs Minister Volkan Bozkir as saying on Thursday.
The number of people Turkey will take back will be in the thousands or tens of thousands, not in the millions, Bozkir also told Anadolu, according to its Twitter account.