VIENNA – Suddenly, Afghans appear to be the new pariahs of Europe.
Despite fleeing attacks in their homeland from the Taliban and alleged Islamic State militants, their quest for a safer life is being blocked at border after border in Europe — and no country along the route wants to take the blame.
"(Everyone) is passing the responsibility down the line," said U.N. refugee spokeswoman Melissa Fleming, who added that her organization had not been informed of who was behind the decision on turning back Afghan refugees, or why.
Macedonia, the entry point from Greece after migrants cross the sea from Turkey, says Serbia is at fault. Officials say they have been forced to turn away Afghans seeking to move on toward other countries in Western Europe because Serbia, on the country's northern border, is not letting them through.
Serbia says it's blocking the Afghans after holding talks with Slovenia to the north and with Austria, which borders Slovenia and represents the end of the Balkan migrant route for those fleeing war, violence and economic hardship in the Mideast, Africa or Asia.
But Slovenia and Austria insist their borders remain open to all nationalities seeking asylum and deny giving orders to other countries to shut out anyone.
"A chain of deportations ... (is) taking place all the way down the Balkan land route," said U.N High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, adding that Afghans stranded between Macedonia and Greece are exposed to "abject conditions."
"(These moves are) compounding the already exceptionally difficult situation in Greece," he added.
While no Europeans officials are willing to say why the Afghans are not being allowed to travel through, it would be difficult to claim that they, as a group, no longer qualify for asylum because security has improved back home.
In a report last month, the Pentagon's Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said the Taliban now controls more territory in Afghanistan than at any time since 2001 and described the country as "even more dangerous than it was a year ago."
The U.N. mission in Afghanistan reported this month that of the 11,000 civilians killed and wounded in 2015, most were the victims of insurgents. It also said 10 percent of the civilian casualties were women and 25 percent were children.
Nine of at least 13 people killed Monday were civilians in the latest such attack — a suicide bombing in Afghanistan's northern Parwan province.
Yet across Afghanistan, the greatest threat to stability is its failing economy. Economic growth has plunged from over 20 percent a few years ago — when international military and aid cash were pouring in — to zero. The Afghan government has been incapable of creating jobs and investors shy away because of the lack of security. For the Afghan people, who are mostly under 25, this translates into a lack of hope for the future — and has propelled so many to flee to Europe.
As the European border blame-game continues, the distress of Afghan refugees grows. At a Greek migrant camp, 24-year-old Jamshid Azizi said he tried to cross into Macedonia in the last few days but was sent back to Greece.
"It is very frustrating that they make the discrimination between Afghan asylum-seekers and Syrian asylum-seekers," Azizi said. "In Syria, there's war for five years. But in Afghanistan, there is war for more than three decades.
"If they want to block the road, they should block (it) for all," declared Azizi, who says he was an interpreter for NATO forces in Afghanistan, not an occupation looked upon kindly by the Taliban.
He and other Afghan refugees started getting rejected a week ago. Macedonian officials say Serbia acted first and their country followed four days later, barring all Afghan citizens from entry starting Tuesday. Serbia insists its borders are open — but apparently to not to Afghans.
"Everyone can move in accordance with the rules set by Austria and Slovenia," said Serbian Labor Minister Aleksandar Vulin. "Serbia does not decide who can pass through its territory without consulting the states up the migrant route."
In Slovenia, Interior Ministry spokeswoman Vesna Drole said her government's policy is to let anyone wanting to apply for asylum in Austria or German cross its border regardless of nationality. Karl-Heinz Grundboeck, her Austrian counterpart, also said his country remains open to all seeking asylum — as long as the number applying at its southern border does not exceed 80 people a day.
Asked who was behind the Afghan border pileup further south, he says "controls and decisions of other states are their responsibility."
At a meeting Monday in Vienna, regional interior and foreign ministers announced specific new border controls and warned that borders across Europe may close for all sooner or later.
The potential for chaos is huge. Nearly 17,000 Afghans passed through Macedonia last month. Close to 10,000 more followed in February until Monday. By Thursday, 854 Afghans were stuck at Macedonia's border with Serbia, and 300 more on Serbia's border to Croatia.
Down the chain, Afghans make up about 30 percent of the roughly 2,000 new arrivals per day in Greece. That nation displayed its anger at other countries' unilateral border decisions by recalling its ambassador Thursday from Vienna.
At a Serbian crossing point into Croatia, from where migrants are taken by train to the Slovenian border, refugee agency field worker Giorgi Sanikidze said the regulations for who could come in are changing "on a daily basis."
Worst affected is Greece — the entry point for the most of the more than 1 million migrants who arrived in Europe last year. The financially strapped nation has already seen over 100,000 more refugees come in so far this year and its migration minister, Ioannis Mouzalas, expects the number of stranded migrants in his country to reach "tens of thousands."
As the bloc's 28 interior ministers met in Brussels to assess the rapidly deteriorating situation, EU migration chief Dimitris Avramopoulus warned that "the unity of the union and lives — human lives — are at stake."
Camped out in Athens as he waited for the Macedonian border to open, Aman Golestani, a 22-year-old Afghan psychology student, expressed those fears in even starker terms.
"The Taliban are killing people like us," he said.
Associated Press writers Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia, Konstantin Testorides in Skopje, Macedonia, Lynne O'Donnell in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Derek Gatopoulos and Elena Becatoros in Athens contributed.