REFUGEES TEARGASSED…Unrest erupts as Macedonia erects fence on Greek border

Police in Macedonia have fired tear gas at a group of refugees stranded for more than a week at the Greece-Macedonia border, as soldiers began erecting a metal fence to keep them out. Alexandra Krause, an emergency coordinator at the UN Refugee Agency, told Al Jazeera from the Macedonian town of Gevgeliga on Saturday, that the move was prompted after a group of mainly Iranians, Moroccans and Bangladeshis started throwing stones at the police.

“Several police officers were injured. We don’t know yet how badly they’re injured,” she said. “But as a reaction to this, police started using tear gas for a short while to disperse the crowd.” The interior ministry later said that 18 policemen were injured, two of whom were hospitalised after the incident.

The Reuters news agency reported that the crowd started to throw stones after one man, believed to be a Moroccan, was electrocuted and badly burned when he climbed on top of a train wagon and touched a power cable overhead.

Krause said there was a heavy deployment of police and military personnel at the border, where calm was said to have returned. Earlier yesterday, Macedonian soldiers began driving metal poles about three metres high into the cold, muddy ground, building a barrier similar to that erected by Hungary on its southern border.

Macedonia, along with other Balkan countries on the route to Western Europe, began turning away “economic migrants” nearly two weeks ago. Human rights groups have criticised the decision, under which only Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans are allowed through.

The new restrictions triggered days of protests from Iranians, Pakistanis, Moroccans and others, stranded in squalid tent camps on the border. Some Iranians have sewn their lips shut. One man on Saturday threw himself on railway lines before the police, screaming and flailing.

Krause confirmed that Syrians, Afghanis and Iraqis are being allowed to cross the border. She said that despite harsh weather conditions, on average 5,000 people were still arriving at the Macedonian border every day. In a surge that began about 18 months ago, people of different nationalities have been flowing across Balkan borders, having landed by boat in Greece from Turkey.

Meanwhile, Turkish PM Ahmet Davutoglu is to meet European Union leaders in Brussels as they attempt to reach a deal to limit the flow of migrants to Europe. Turkey expects to receive money and political concessions in return for clamping down on its borders and keeping refugees in the country.

Davutoglu hoped for a “historic day” in Turkey’s relations with the EU. Correspondents say there is still disagreement about how much each EU member state will give Turkey. Almost 900,000 migrants have made the trip to Europe this year.

Many are fleeing conflict in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, and lived in makeshift camps in Turkey before their journey. But it is understood that the EU is offering Turkey €3bn ($3.2bn; £0.7bn) over two years towards tightening border controls and improving conditions for those large numbers of migrants and refugees still within its borders.

However, it has still not been decided how much each EU member state will contribute or how the money will be spent. Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann said he was optimistic a deal could be reached. “Turkey now wants €3bn a year to invest the money in schools and accommodation. We’ll meet somewhere in the middle,” he said, quoted by Reuters.

Ankara is also hoping that negotiations on its long-standing application to join the EU will be given a fresh boost. It wants visa restrictions to be lifted for Turkish citizens travelling to Europe. Davutoglu said this was a “new beginning” for Turkey.

“Today is a historic day in our accession process to the EU,” he said. “With EU leaders today we’ll be sharing the destiny of our continent, global challenges of the economic crisis as well as regional geopolitical challenges in front of us, including migration issues.”

But BBC Turkey correspondent Mark Lowen says there is reluctance among some EU members to bow too deeply to Turkey when there are serious concerns about its government’s respect for democracy and the rule of law.

The editor of the main centre-left newspaper here, arrested this week after an article that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan disliked, has published an open letter to EU leaders urging them not to prioritise the refugee crisis over respect for human rights in Turkey. The killing of a leading human rights lawyer, Tahir Elci, in the south-eastern city of Diyarbakir on the eve of the meeting will also cause concern.

In reality though, our correspondent adds, the magnitude of the migration flow means Turkey holds the cards in these negotiations and is likely to use its leverage as much as it can. — Aljazeera-BBC

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