March 11, 2016 11:36 pm

Group of weary refugees stuck at Serbian-Macedonian border

Yousif Shikhmous, a migrant from Syria holding his baby named Merkkel in an improvised camp on the border line between Macedonia and Serbia near the northern Macedonian village of Tabanovce, Friday, March 11, 2016.

AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic
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TABANOVCE, Macedonia — Yousif Shikhmous had such high hopes of starting a new life in Germany that when his son was born, the Syrian refugee named him Merkkel. Only four months later, Shikhmous has seen all those dreams shattered after he and his family boarded what has become known as “The Last Train to Europe.”

The group of about 400 refugees from Syria and Iraq were among the last to enter Macedonia from Greece, where they got stuck this week when the Balkan countries started closing their borders, abruptly shutting the main migrant pathway to Europe.

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The group of mostly women and small children had caught a northbound train that took them to the border with Serbia. But instead of moving on, they found themselves in a no-man’s-land between the Macedonian and Serbian frontiers — mired in a muddy limbo created by the latest chaos marking Europe’s worst migration crisis since World War II.

Thousands of people now are similarly stuck along the route through the Balkans that saw more than 1 million people surge out of Turkey, through Greece and toward the wealthier nations of Europe in 2015.

READ MORE: 25 migrants drown off Turkey, few allowed into Macedonia

Refused permission to move onward, they are caught by the suddenly changing entry rules and living in dire conditions in small, donated tents. And more people fleeing war and poverty keep streaming out of the Middle East and elsewhere.

About 14,000 people are stranded on the Greek side of the border with Macedonia, and authorities hope to start relocating most of them from an overcrowded refugee camp there in the coming weeks. Tensions are running so high at the camp near the Greek village of Idomeni that fights over food broke out Friday as aid organizations distributed the supplies, leaving some people bloodied and limping.

It took two months for the Shikhmous family — 32-year-old Yousif, his 20-year-old wife, Dilan Haji, and young Merkkel — to escape the Syrian civil war. Their journey began in the town of Hasaka in northeastern Syria, where their son was born and named for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, even though they spell his name differently.

They went via Turkey and over the Aegean Sea to Greece, crossed the Greece-Macedonia border on foot, and boarded a special train to take the refugees to Serbia, paying 25 euros (about $28) per person.

WATCH: Upwards of 13 thousand refugees stranded at Greece-Macedonia border

They reached the Serbian border Monday, where they got off the train to cross the frontier on foot and be taken to a refugee center for processing to continue the journey north.

But nations along the Balkans route have been tightening border restrictions this month on migrants and refugees. This week, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia suddenly refused them transit.

The Shikhmous family and the other refugees never made it across the Serbian border, having been told it had been shut to them for good. Still technically in Macedonia, they can see the Serbian border police patrol about 50 yards (meters) away.

They also learned that Macedonian authorities would no longer take them, having already stamped their papers.

They found themselves trapped, with no shelter or help. For four nights, they have been staying in a sodden field.

READ MORE: Greek governor calls for state of emergency as thousands of migrants gather at Macedonian border

“We want them to open the border and to go to Germany,” Shikhmous said. “I am waiting here for the border to open.”

They stayed in the field, with border police keeping guard behind barricades. As heavy rain started falling, the vast grass field turned into pools of water and ankle-deep mud, strewn with garbage and small fires for warmth. Stray dogs roamed nearby, looking for food scraps amid the waste.

Shikhmous said in broken English that when they arrived, there was “no food, no dress for woman, no dress for men, no milk for baby.”

After a day or two, aid groups brought warm clothes, food, rubber boots and jackets, he said. They set up portable toilets and distributed tents. Doctors arrived to check on the children, many of whom have fallen sick with fever and respiratory and stomach ailments.

Loud coughing echoed through the makeshift camp Friday as refugees lined up for hot soup, many trembling, and some without shoes or warm jackets.

WATCH: Overcrowding big problem on Macedonia border

“They are in a very difficult situation. It has been raining, and the living conditions are horrible here,” said Mohammad Arif, the U.N. refugee agency representative in Macedonia.

“The way they are living … I would not be surprised to see that many of the children are already sick by now, and most of them would get all kinds of sicknesses just to be living in this kind of situation.”

Arif said that aid organizations have been trying to get those in the camp to move to a nearby migrant center already hosting several hundred people.

Macedonian authorities agreed Thursday evening to allow the refugees to move there, he added, but many people refuse, still holding out hope that the border with Serbia will suddenly open and allow them through.

“The refugees say, ‘Don’t take us a step back; take us a step forward,'” Arif said.

READ MORE: Powerful drone footage shows 10,000-person ‘tent city’ refugee camp in Greece

On Tuesday, the EU and Turkey agreed on the outlines of a deal — set to be finalized next week — that would send thousands of people back to Turkey. In return, the EU would take an equal number of Syrian refugees who have found shelter in Turkey.

In this way, officials hope to keep would-be refugees from dangerous sea journeys and ruthless smugglers. But some human rights activists believe the plan is illegal or could simply drive refugees to other, even more hazardous routes. Albanian police have increased their presence on the border with Greece.

Greece has begun sending back to Turkey dozens of people who do not qualify for international protection as asylum seekers, Turkish officials said. Most were from Pakistan and north Africa.

At the makeshift camp near the Serbian border, Mouaz Estwani said he does not want to return to Aleppo in northern Syria, which has seen fierce fighting in recent months.

“We don’t want to go back — we are out of Macedonia now,” Estwani said, even if it meant spending weeks in the muddy camp.

“People, help us. Look at the situation. It’s not suitable for animal,” he pleaded. “We ask them to accept us. We escaped from the death.”

WATCH: Aerials of migrants at Greek-Macedonia border

© 2016 The Associated Press

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