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Humanitarian Fears Grow After Balkan Nations Shut Borders To Migrants

A migrant child covered by a blanket stands in the rain at the northern Greek border station at Idomeni on Thursday.

This week, several Balkan countries slammed their borders shut on migrants, effectively cutting off their main route leading to Northern Europe.

It's causing growing humanitarian concerns as tens of thousands of people who hoped to move north remain stuck in camps in Greece. Meanwhile, EU nations are still struggling to come up with a solution to the crisis.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized the current situation — exacerbated by Austria's decision to impose new border restrictions last month — as "not durable and sustainable" in an interview broadcast Thursday.

"This unilateral decision by Austria and subsequently by the Balkan countries on one hand brings us fewer refugees, but on the other hand puts Greece in a very difficult situation," Merkel said in an interview with MDR radio, the Associated Press reported.

"The problem is not solved by one (country) making a decision, it must be a decision that is right for all 28," she adds.

The closures are creating a bottleneck of migrants in Greece, which has been a main entry point to Europe. Reporter Joanna Kakissis told Morning Edition on Wednesday that there are "currently more than 35,000 Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans stuck in Greece — in crowded camps mostly."

Joanna says the Balkan countries are stopping anyone without a visa:

"They really had no choice after Austria imposed these very severe border restrictions last month. Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia — these are all parts of what used to be Yugoslavia. And they have long said they don't have the resources to care for very large groups of asylum seekers.

"Migrants were just transiting through these countries. ... So sometimes they only stayed a few hours before going on to the next border. But with northern Europe closing to migrants, Balkan countries worry that lots of Syrians and Iraqis would be stuck there, just as is happening now in Greece."

It means the migrants stuck in Greece face tough decisions about their next steps. The Washington Post reports that some are deciding to cross through Hungary, which has earned a "reputation as the most hostile nation in Europe" toward migrants.

Hungary's brand-new border fence and the threat of prison sentences for people caught crossing over has pushed migrants to choose other routes. But as the Post reports:

"Now that the neighbors are all closing their own borders, however, asylum seekers are coming back to Hungary. After months in which the number of people caught trying to sneak through the fence dropped nearly to zero, arrests have risen sharply in recent weeks as controls tightened elsewhere. In February alone, nearly 2,500 people were apprehended."

At a Brussels summit this week, the EU and Turkey indicated they are nearing an agreement to address the flood of migrants, as we reported. The accord is expected to formally block the Western Balkan route, the main path migrants have been using as they head to northern Europe.

As NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has reported, European leaders "want Ankara to do a better job of stopping illegal migrants from transiting through Turkey to get to Europe, and to take back rejected asylum seekers that came through Turkey."

The leaders are scheduled to reconvene on March 17 to discuss the proposal, which is coming under increasing criticism from rights advocates.

U.N. Human Rights Chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein decried the "race to repel these people," which he says is "picking up momentum," in a speech Thursday to the Human Rights Council. He said the draft agreement with Turkey "raises a number of very serious concerns." Here's more from Hussein:

"Among my concerns is the potential for collective and arbitrary expulsions, which are illegal. Border restrictions which do not permit determination of circumstance of each individual violate international and European law.

"I must also reiterate my profound concern about the restrictive measures such as erecting fences; denying people access to individualised procedures; and arbitrarily denying entry to people of specific nationalities."

Human Rights Watch's refugee rights director, Bill Frelick, said in a statement that the emerging EU-Turkey deal has a "fundamental contradiction":

"The parties failed to say how individual needs for international protection would be fairly assessed during the rapid-fire mass expulsions the agreed would take place."

Ultimately, "refugees should not be used as bargaining chips," Frelick says.

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