Thursday 22 February 2018

Macedonia's use of teargas on refugees 'shames Europe'

The Greek PM Alexis Tsipras has criticised border incident. Photo: Reuters
The Greek PM Alexis Tsipras has criticised border incident. Photo: Reuters
Migrant children play with rubber bullets and empty cases near Idomeni yesterday. Photo: Reuters

Nick Squires in Rome

Greece's prime minister accused Macedonia of "shaming" Europe after the Balkan country's police used plastic bullets, stun grenades and tear gas to beat back refugees from a border fence.

Around 300 refugees were hurt in the clashes at Idomeni on the border between the two countries, including 40 who were hit by plastic bullets.

Athens said the response of the Macedonian police was wildly disproportionate. "Faced with people who were clearly not armed and constituted no serious threat, they attacked with chemicals, with tear gas and rubber bullets," prime minister Alexis Tsipras said yesterday.

"This is a great shame for European culture and for countries who want to be part of it," he said, calling on the EU and the UN's refugee agency to take a stand on the issue.

Mr Tsipras said there was evidence foreign activists had encouraged and incited the refugees to storm the border fence.

The refugee crisis has attracted hundreds of well-meaning volunteers but some are from radical left-wing groups with a firm anti-establishment political agenda.

The clashes at Idomeni took place after leaflets were distributed in Arabic claiming, falsely, that the border was about to be reopened.

The Macedonian police said they used tear gas in order to defend themselves after several hundred refugees tried to break down the border fence.

They accused their Greek counterparts of failing to prevent the refugees from trying to scale the fence, which is topped with razor wire.

Skopje said the refugees threw stones and said that 23 police officers were injured in the clashes.

Around 11,000 refugees, many of them women and small children, have been living in squalid conditions in muddy fields outside the village of Idomeni ever since Macedonia closed its border last month.

The medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said it had treated 300 refugees, including 200 for breathing problems caused by the tear gas and 40 injured by rubber bullets. Of those hit by tear gas, around 30 were children aged between five and 15.

Several people said they had been beaten by the Macedonian police.

"Three children were brought in with head injuries caused by rubber bullets," said Conor Kenny, an MSF doctor in Idomeni.

Greek officials have been trying to persuade refugees to leave the makeshift tent city at Idomeni and move into government-run camps, but most are reluctant to do so and still harbour hopes that the border will be reopened.

Around 53,000 refugees and migrants are stranded in Greece. An agreement signed between the EU and Turkey last month to deport people back to Turkey seems to be having an effect.

The first deportations, from the Aegean islands of Chios and Lesbos, took place last week.

In 24 hours from Sunday to Monday, only 18 refugees and migrants entered Greece by sea. So far this month there have been just over 1,700 arrivals, far fewer than in previous months.

Irish Independent

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