THESSALONIKI, Greece – Police blocked some 200 migrants and asylum-seekers Wednesday from leaving a city in northern Greece for the Macedonian border in hopes of traveling on to other European Union countries.
Dozens of officers in riot gear used shields to push back the migrants near the center of Thessaloniki and blocked the road with police buses. The marchers, who included families with young children, refused to leave and sat down in the street. No one was hurt in the brief confrontation.
The migrants, most of them from Syria, Iraq and Somalia, had gathered throughout the day in Thessaloniki. Many said they were responding to a campaign on social media for a march to the Greece-Macedonia border to protest their inability to relocate to other European countries.
"I have no reason to stay here," Ahmed Mohammed, an asylum-seeker from Syria, told The Associated Press. "I've been here for six months, first on (the island of) Chios and then I went to Athens. I can't work. I can't do anything."
More than 60,000 migrants and refugees who first arrived in Greece remain stranded in the country. Some countries have strengthened their borders to prevent immigrants from arriving illegally, while others have refused to take in asylum-seekers under an EU distribution plan.
The people who gathered in Thessaloniki said they had intended to walk some 70 kilometers (45 miles) north to the border town of Idomeni, where a huge refugee camp sprung up and was cleared last year after Balkan countries closed off a popular route to the European Union.
Greek officials have conceded that a European Union agreement with Turkey to prevent refugees and migrants from trying to reach Europe has reduced the number of people attempting the trip, but say provisions to return those who made it to Greek islands to Turkey face major delays.
Yiannis Balafas, a Greek deputy minister for migration, visited Thessaloniki Wednesday to promote a voluntary deportation program that would see migrants returned to their home countries.
"Greece has transformed from a transit country for migrants to one that traps them," Balafas said. "That's why a voluntary return program could be so helpful."
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