Rough seas, harsh winter, border limits add to migrant woes

PRESEVO, Serbia (AP) — Rasul Orwani thought he had faced the worst after braving cold, rough seas in a rickety wooden boat to travel from Turkey to Greece, then came the Balkans.

After arriving in Macedonia with dozens of other migrants, the group crossed into Serbia on foot in the middle of the night, icy snow stinging their eyes & lacing the children's faces with tears.

Their heads bent low to protect from the cold, the migrants trudged slowly through the snow, carrying babies, small children & belongings along the 2-kilometer (1.2 mile) stretch of the road over the so-called green boundary between the two Balkan nations. A 10-year-old boy took a blanket from his shoulders to wrap it around his younger sister as they walked across the frozen landscape hand in hand.

p>Even as winter bears down on Europe & European Union countries set up new administrative hurdles for their entry, tens of thousands of migrants from the Middle East, Africa & Asia have been desperate enough to embark on the weeks-long journey across the Aegean Sea & along the so-called Balkan migrant corridor where frigid weather & stricter border controls have turned an already tough journey into an even more treacherous one.

Safe in the Serbian town of Presevo on the border with Macedonia, Orwani said there was no turning back.

"Our trip is very dangerous & risky," the 20-year-old Orwani said. "We crossed the sea, we were in a boat, & the waves in the sea could easily sink us in the water."

While Europe took in more than 1 million people in 2015, EU countries have been struggling to limit the biggest migration to the continent since World War II. Some countries along the migrant route have said they want to slow the influx or even completely block it. Some of the nations imposed new, stricter regulations for those transiting toward their ultimate goal, Germany or other rich west European countries.

As a result, dozens of refugees have been turned back from the borders amid freezing winter temperatures, while others have faced border closures & long hours in registration centers & refugee camps. Experts say the measures are unlikely to stop the flow, yet could instead prompt the refugees to again start using illegal routes over razor-wire border fences & through forests, pushing them into the hands of ruthless smugglers.

Aid groups say migrants passing through the Balkans have faced difficulty traveling in the snow & ice, & there has been a surge in cold-related illnesses.

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A family of refugees walks towards the border with Serbia from the transit center for refugees near  …

Women, children & babies, in particular, are in danger of hypothermia, according to the Save the Children aid group. It said migrants have been arriving in Serbia with blue lips, distressed & shaking from the cold. Exhausted mothers have told the group's aid workers they are unable to keep their babies warm & dry, & are stumbling while carrying them on the icy roads.

Saymira, from Afghanistan, crossed into Serbia with her husband & two young children just days before Orwani. Two months before her father & young sister died in the sea trying to reach a Greek Island from Turkey.

"Now I am very sad, I cannot tolerate this situation," she said while pushing a baby stroller through the snow on the border path between Macedonia & Serbia.

Saymira said she was on her way to Germany because she has relatives there.

Most refugees are not used to winter conditions, & many set off from home countries without warm clothing. Mirjana Milenkovski, the spokeswoman for the U.N. Refugee Agency in Serbia, said refugees are being provided heated shelter, bus transfers, warm drinks & clothes as they pass through Serbia & other countries.

From Serbia, migrants pack trains & buses to obtain to Serbia's border with Croatia. There, they again wait in refugee centers to head to another registration center in Croatia, where authorities go through the lists & check their refugee papers.

From Croatia, migrants go on to Slovenia & after more registration & checkups, they move on to Austria & then Germany. Dozens drop out along the way, with authorities in each of the countries conducting their own selection procedures.

The International Organization for Migration said 368 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean in January, nearly one in six of them children, as minors make up a growing percentage of those making the treacherous trip.

As Orwani made it to the Greek shores last month, dozens of others weren't so lucky. Two other unseaworthy boats carrying migrants sank, killing 46 people — many of them children — & highlighting the plight of people ready to risk their own lives & those of their children to start a new life somewhere free of war & poverty.

Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia & Slovenia first said they were letting in only people from war-ravaged Syria, Afghanistan & Iraq. New restrictions were imposed in January with only those seeking asylum in Germany or Austria being let through. This means all others are sent back from the borders, where they often seek smugglers' assist to continue through clandestine routes.

Macedonia has recently started periodically closing its border with Greece, leaving thousands of desperate migrants stranded for days in a makeshift camp without any official word when they could continue their journey.

In addition, anti-immigration sentiment has been on the rise throughout Europe since the terror attacks in Paris in November & the New Year's Eve assaults on women in Germany. Austria said it will take 37,500 refugees this year & a total of 127,500 through 2019. Countries like tiny Slovenia have urged immediate EU action to control the flow — or even stop it completely on the Greek-Macedonian border— before the expected spring surge of asylum seekers when the weather gets warmer.

In the Presevo refugee center, Orwani was waiting patiently for his turn to register. He said he wanted to go to Germany, which — since he's from Afghanistan — means he might be allowed through. After crossing the Aegean Sea, Orwani said nothing else can be nearly as hard.

Orwani said he had never seen the sea until he boarded a small wooden boat in Turkey last month & set off with dozens of other migrants determined to reach Europe. The sea was rough & cold & Orwani's boat had engine trouble, barely making it to a Greek island. But, he says it was worth the risk.

"It was very dangerous, & our engine had a problem. We were frightened & it was really risky," Orwani said. "But, because we had such a offensive situation (at home), we accept the risk."

_____

Gec & Dusan Stojanovic reported from Belgrade, Serbia.

Immigration IssuesPolitics & GovernmentSerbiaGermany

Source: “Associated Press”

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