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European nations shut their borders to economic migrants

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Posted at 12:57 PM, Nov 19, 2015
and last updated 2015-11-19 13:57:44-05

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Most nations along Europe's refugee corridor shut their borders Thursday to those not coming from war-torn countries such as Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq, leaving thousands of others seeking a better life in the continent stranded at Balkan border crossings.

The overnight decision triggered the domino effect that both asylum-seekers and European nations had feared given the record number of people fleeing to Europe this year, and new fears after the deadly Paris attacks of possible militants coming in with refugees.

Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia weren't allowing in the so-called economic migrants whose countries aren't shattered by armed struggles and wars.

In the Greek village of Idomeni at the border with Macedonia, police said the border has essentially been shut down to all since Thursday morning. Some 3,000 people are waiting at a camp nearby that provides temporary shelter for those heading north through the Balkans.

About 500 people from Iran, Morocco and Algeria gathered on the border line between Greece and Macedonia to protest the closure. As a result, nobody else from the nationalities that Macedonia is letting through — Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis — were able to cross.

Dariush Yazdani, 25, from Tehran, said he was determined to reach Germany, and faced imprisonment were he to return to Iran.

"I will never go back," he said.

Mohammed Mirzam, 30, from Afghanistan knows he will be let through, but his wife and two children, Ilia, 5, and Elena, 3, are Iranian nationals and will not.

"We're trapped," he said, from the Greek side of the border, at Idomeni. "They won't let my family across. We have no money, and we're waiting without any idea of what is to happen."

On the Serbian border with Macedonia, the Serbs were letting in only migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. And on the Croatia-Serbia border, Croats were only accepting people from those three countries plus Palestine.

Slovenia — the next country in the chain — also said it has been turning back the so-called economic migrants.

"This is going to be definitely a challenging situation," U.N. refugee agency spokeswoman in Serbia Melita Sunjic said. "UNHCR does not think that there is any nation that can be excluded from international protection based on their nationalities, but each case individually should be screened and processed based on the merits of the case."

The partial closure of the borders could trigger huge pileups of desperate people along the Balkan corridor that has seen hundreds of thousands of people cross as they head to wealthy EU states, mostly Germany. Although Syrians are the biggest group among the asylum-seekers, tens of thousands of people fleeing poverty — such as Pakistanis, Bangladeshis or Sri Lankans — have also joined the surge.

Serbian Labor Minister Aleksandar Vulin blamed EU-members Slovenia and Croatia for the ban, saying they have started turning back economic migrants — those fleeing poverty, not war.

"We have to protect our country. That is why we have applied reciprocal measures toward the people Slovenia and Croatia have no room for," Vulin said.

Slovenia's decision to start turning back people it considers economic migrants triggered the chain reaction along the Balkan migrant route.

Slovenian police spokesman Drago Menegalia said in recent days, "there is increased number of persons who were recognized as pure economic migrants" entering the small Alpine state from Croatia.

"These foreigners do not qualify for international protection," according to EU laws, he said.

Slovenian officials say they will continue to allow the transit of refugees from war-ravaged countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq pass through on their way to Austria and other richer EU states.