HAMILO, Greece – Hundreds of refugees and migrants stranded in Greece are crossing into neighboring Macedonia, defying border closures by Balkan countries.
Several hundred people are making their way across the border after walking for hours in heavy rain and wading across a river — many holding children and their belongings over their heads as they crossed thigh-deep in the water.
The migrants then found a break in the border fence near the Greek village of Hamilo, and crossed into Macedonia.
In chaotic scenes, Greek and international volunteers helped the migrants across the river, using a rope to help them through the fast-flowing water. Earlier in the day, Macedonian police found the bodies of three people thought to be migrants crossing a river in a nearby area.
Macedonia's border has been sealed for the past 10 days, following transit restrictions imposed by EU-member Austria.
The migrants walked out of the overcrowded camp of Idomeni on the Greek-Macedonian border Monday, traveling west on foot.
They repeatedly defied orders by the Greek police to turn back.
More than 40,000 people have been stranded in Greece after Macedonia and other ex-Yugoslav countries closed their borders to migrants and refugees — prompting them to seek more dangerous crossings.
About 14,000 are at Idomeni alone, where conditions have continued to deteriorate after days of torrential rainfall.
Underscoring the risks, police in Macedonia said the bodies of one man and two women, believed to be migrants, were found Monday in the Suva Reka river near the border with Greece. Twenty migrants crossed safely and another three were hospitalized, authorities said.
"This is the situation in which people have become desperate and frustrated," said Ljubinka Brasnarska, a spokeswoman in Macedonia for the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR.
"The border restrictions imposed by the countries have forced people to take desperate actions."
Police and armed forces on the Macedonian side of the border have stepped up patrols along parts of the newly-built border fence where migrants are likely to cross.
Parts of the fence are made up solely of coils of razor wire, while breaks in the barrier also occur at rivers and mountain slopes on the border, mainly to the west of Idomeni.
A cap on migrants imposed by Austria last month set off a domino effect of border closures across the Balkans, leaving thousands stranded in Greece.
Despite the closures, more 8,500 refugees and migrants traveled to the Greek islands from Turkey last week, according to the UNHCR.
In an interview published Sunday, Austria's foreign minister said border closures should be extended.
Sebastian Kurz told Germany's Bild am Sonntag newspaper that the route leading through Italy to central Europe should also be blocked.
"Smuggling can't be prevented entirely ... (so) we will have to do everything that we are now doing on the western Balkan route along the Italy-Mediterranean route too." he said.
"The time of waving through refugees to central Europe is over."
Testorides reported from Skopje, Macedonia, Amer Cohadzic contributed from Idomeni, Greece. Derek Gatopoulos in Athens, Greece, Geir Moulson in Berlin, and Fisnik Abrashi in Prague, Czech Republic also contributed.
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