The Macedonian army is extending the fence along its border with Greece after several hundred migrants tried to break down the existing fence and enter the country on February 29.
Macedonia has followed Austria and other Southeast European countries on the main Western Balkans route in restricting the numbers of refugees and migrants allowed to enter its territory. It is estimated that some 7,000 people are stranded in the Idomeni zone at the Macedonian-Greek border, but numbers could reach 70,000 in the next few weeks, according to Greek minister for immigration, Janis Muzalas.
The incident started following the rumours that the border was opened, spurring a group of migrants to breach the police cordon on the Greek side and push against the fence, Macedonian broadcaster Kanal 5 said, quoting the Greek TV station Skai.
The migrants threw stones and other missiles at the Macedonian police and smashed a section of the fence, which provoked the police to use tear gas against the crowd.
The Macedonian authorities had allowed migrants to move freely through the country since the crisis started last year, but following the tougher measures taken by other countries on the migrant route, it tightened measures and also built a fence on the Greek border.
On February 12 Austria asked Macedonia to be ready to completely halt the flow of migrants through its border with Greece and offered support for such a move.
The latest shutdown was sparked by a Serbian measure to close the border for refugees from Afghanistan. Skopje responded by also tightening restrictions for migrants from Afghanistan in late February.
The Macedonian army has already started to reinforce the fence at Gevgelija crossing point with Greece. According to broadcaster Telma, soldiers are building a fence near the Vinojug migrant transit centre.
“The problem with the refugee crisis must be solved from its root, which means conditions to be created in the countries of the origin of refugees to enable them to remain there. Any other solution is not a real solution,” interim interior minister Oliver Spasovski said on February 26, according to a statement released by his party, the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM).
Spasovski said that Macedonia will be able to receive as many refugees as can be accepted by the countries of the Western Balkan refugee route - Serbia and Croatia.
The interior ministry did not respond to requests from bne IntelliNews for further information.
On February 23 the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) raised concerns that recent restrictive practices adopted in a number of European countries, including Macedonia, are placing additional hardships on refugees and asylum-seekers across Europe, creating chaos at several border points, and putting particular pressure on Greece as it struggles to deal with large numbers of people in need of accommodation and services.
According to the UNHCR, on February 17, Austria set a daily limit of 3,200 people to enter its territory and announced it will only accept 80 new asylum applications per day, with Slovenia following suit by announcing similar measures. Croatia said on February 18 that it would limit numbers to 2,500 people a day.
On February 18, the police chiefs of Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia issued a statement announcing their agreement to jointly profile and register refugees and asylum-seekers at the Macedonian-Greek border. A week later on February 24, foreign ministers from Austria and the Western Balkans countries agreed that migration flows need to be “significantly reduced”.
In Albania, which is not on the main route, prime minister Edi Rama said February 26 that Tirana will not open the borders for the refugees that are waiting to enter the country, broadcaster Top Channel reported.