Teargas fired as refugees try to breach Greece-Macedonia border

Macedonian police have fired teargas as a group of refugees broke through a fence at the small frontier town of Idomeni on the Greek-Macedonian border.

A crush developed when rumours spread that Macedonian authorities were opening the border after it had been fully sealed for several hours.

Hundreds who gathered at the razor-wire fence used metal poles to bring down a gate by digging beneath the barrier and pushing it up and out. At least two people collapsed in the crush and use of teargas, Reuters television images showed.

Up to 500 people pushed their way past Greek police to reach the gate used to let trains through at the border crossing. A Reuters witness said Macedonian police fired several rounds of teargas into crowds, who were chanting “Open the border!” and throwing stones at the police.

About 6,500 people – mostly Syrian and Iraqi – are stuck on the Greek side of the border. Some have been there for up to eight days with little food or shelter as Macedonia accepts only a trickle of people each day.

Greece map

The desperate scenes came as Angela Merkel warned that European countries cannot afford to let the continent’s refugee crisis plunge Greece into chaos by shutting their borders to migrants.

With up to 70,000 refugees expected to become stranded on Greece’s northern borders in the coming days, the German chancellor said the recently bailed-out Athens government could become paralysed by the huge numbers of arrivals from Syria, Afghanistan and conflict-ridden African countries.

“Do you seriously believe that all the euro states that last year fought all the way to keep Greece in the eurozone – and we were the strictest – can one year later allow Greece to, in a way, plunge into chaos?” Merkel said in an interview with the public broadcaster ARD.

Greece fears that it will become a “parking lot” for refugees as its northern neighbours tightly restrict the number of people coming into their territory. About 22,000 people are in Greece seeking to travel to countries in northern Europe.

This month Austria, which took in 90,000 asylum seekers in 2015 and saw almost 10 times as many pass through, imposed a daily cap on the number of asylum claims it would hear and the number of migrants and refugees it would allow to enter its territory.

At a meeting in Vienna last week, it persuaded nine countries along the Balkans migrant route from Greece to impose tighter controls too. Neither Greece nor Germany were invited to the talks, starkly exposing the rifts within the EU as it faces the biggest influx of migrants since 1945.

Germany in particular has criticised the limit on the number allowed to pass through Austria. Vienna has said Germany itself imposed daily caps in December, leading to “huge backlogs” in Austria.

On Sunday Merkel said she found Austria’s “unilateral” decision “a little unfortunate” and said it had derailed a timetable for a series of EU measures and meetings to tackle the migrant crisis.

She said Vienna’s move came just before an EU summit on 18 February and led her to insist that leaders move forward their next Brussels debate on the issue from a regular 18 March summit to 7 March.

“If Austria had not taken this decision, we could have waited until our regular March 18 council,” she said, allowing time to see results from several measures, such as a Nato surveillance mission in the Aegean sea to stop refugee boats.