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Travelling To Greece / August 22, 2017

A refugee at the camp in Idomeni, on the Greek-Macedonian borderA refugee at the camp in Idomeni, on the Greek-Macedonian border. Photograph: Zoltan Balogh/EPA

Hundreds of thousands could become trapped in Greece after Macedonia, Croatia and Slovenia announce frontier closures

European leaders claim to have closed the main refugee route to northern Europe, raising the possibility of tens if not hundreds of thousands of refugees being trapped in Greece while the EU attempts to finalise a deal that could see them all returned to Turkey.

Macedonia, Croatia and Slovenia – three of the countries that lie between Greece and the preferred refugee destinations in northern Europe – all announced on Wednesday that their borders were now shut. Several hundred thousand asylum-seekers have used this route to reach countries such as Germany since it became popular last summer, most of them transported and sheltered by Balkan countries during their journey.

Following the closures, Donald Tusk, president of the European council, claimed that “irregular flows of migrants along western Balkans route have come to an end”. And Slovenia’s prime minister, Miro Cerar, said: “The so-called western Balkan route for irregular migrants is no more.”

Donald Tusk: travel on the western Balkans route has ‘come to an end’.In response, analysts and campaigners said that though officials have closed the humanitarian corridor that emerged late last summer, irregular migration would probably still continue throughout eastern Europe, albeit to a lesser extent. Tens of thousands of refugees made their own way through the Balkans in the first half of 2015, despite the opposition of European governments – and this pattern is likely to re-emerge.

The UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency, is preparing contingency plans for when new routes are forged, said Carlotta Sami, a spokeswoman for the organisation.

“We do not think that the closure of the [western Balkan] borders will stem the flow, ” said Sami, adding: “If this route closes, we will have new routes with new problems. We are preparing for an increase through Libya, Bulgaria, Turkey to Italy, Libya to Italy – and there is the possibility of more people crossing to Spain.”

On Tuesday, one Syrian who has been trying to leave for Greece from Turkey for a week, told the Guardian that she and others still intended to make the journey. “The trip is illegal anyway, so different rules are not going to deter us, ” said Muna, 23, who asked for her full name not to be disclosed. “We as Syrians are used to finding ways round rules now anyway.”