GEVGELIJA, Macedonia — Thousands of rain-soaked migrants on Saturday rushed past Macedonian riot police who were attempting to block them from entering Macedonia from Greece. Police fired stun grenades and dozens of people were injured in the border clashes.
By the end of the day, every one got across, including several hundred migrants, mostly elderly and children, who had remained on the Greek side of the border. Thousands then boarded trains and buses that took them up north to the border with Serbia from where they will attempt to enter European Union-member Hungary.
The tumult started when police allowed a small group of migrants with young children to cross the frontier, and crowds in the back squeezed the migrants toward the shielded police wall. Many women, at least one pregnant, and children fell to the ground, apparently fainting after squeezing past the cordon.
Then thousands of others, including women with babies and men carrying small children, grabbed their chance to climb over razor wire or run across a field not protected by the fence to enter Macedonia.
Police stun grenades did not to stop the rush, but many fleeing migrants were chased down by policemen and severely kicked or beaten with batons. The elderly, women and children were not spared.
At least 25 injured people were brought to a railway station in the Macedonian town of Gevgelija by fellow migrants. Many children lost contact with their parents in the chaos and desperately called out for “mama, baba!”
It was the second day of clashes between the migrants and baton-wielding police who are attempting to block them from heading toward the European Union.
On Friday, police fired stun grenades and clashed with the migrants, a day after Macedonia’s government declared a state of emergency on the frontier to stop the human tide. At least 10 people were injured.
Both Greece and Macedonia have seen an unprecedented wave of migrants this year, most fleeing wars in Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq. More than 160,000 have arrived so far in Greece, mostly crossing in inflatable dinghies from the nearby Turkish coast — an influx that has overwhelmed Greek authorities and the country’s small Aegean islands. Some 45,000 crossed through Macedonia over the past two months.
Few, if any, of the migrants want to remain in Greece, which is in the grip of a financial crisis — or in impoverished Macedonia. Most head from Greece to Macedonia where they cram onto trains and head through Serbia and Hungary on their way to more prosperous EU countries such as Germany, the Netherlands or Sweden.
Friday night, police allowed only small groups of families with children to cross the border by walking on railway tracks to the station in Gevgelija, where most take trains to the border with Serbia before heading further north toward EU-member Hungary.
Those who could not cross spent the rainy and chilly night in the open with little food. They massed close to a razor wire separating them from machine-gun toting Macedonian policemen. Some raised their babies above their heads to try to persuade the policemen to let them through.
“These men are heartless,” said Yousef, a Syrian refugee who gave only his first name, as he held a little wide-eyed girl with curly hair in his arms and pointed toward the policemen. “They don’t care about our tragedy.”
A police officer told The Associated Press that the force is only following the government’s orders.
“Until we receive a different order, the situation here will remain like this,” said the officer, who refused to be named because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
As heavy rain poured, some migrants took off their shirts and booed and shouted insults at the policemen in camouflage fatigues. Others took shelter inside dozens of small tents or under a few trees on a muddy field.
Last week, there were chaotic scenes at the Gevgelija train station involving hundreds of migrants trying to board the trains.
Macedonian police said they started blocking the refugees on the 50-kilometer (30-mile) frontier “for the security of citizens who live in the border areas and for better treatment of the migrants.”
On Saturday, Rama Kabul from Syria walked the railway track in the opposite direction from the station pleading with two Macedonian policemen pushing her back with riot shields to let her brother — trapped behind the razor fence on the border — join her.
“They took me out and left him there,” Kabul said with tears in her eyes. “I just want to talk to him.”
While migrants persisted to reach northern Europe by overland routes, other dramas were playing out in the Mediterranean north of Libya Saturday.
While migrants struggled on land, the Italian coast guard said by early afternoon its was coordinating rescues from four fishing boats, crowded with migrants, and from 14 smaller motorized rubber dinghies.
It was too soon to estimate total numbers. But on several days in past weeks have seen close to 3,000 arrive in a 24-hour period.
Frances d’Emilio in Rome contributed to this report.