By Fedja Grulovic
POLIKASTRO, Greece (Reuters) - Hundreds of migrants set out on foot along a major north-south highway in Greece on Tuesday, heading north for Macedonia after being stranded for days by farmer and taxi driver protests on either side of the frontier.
At least 80 buses packed with migrants, many of them women and children fleeing the war in Syria, were backed up 10 km (6.2 miles) short of Greece's border with Macedonia, halted by police.
Taxi drivers on the Macedonian side have blocked the railway line between the two countries, protesting over the fact that police give priority first to trains and buses to take the migrants north to Serbia en route to western Europe.
On the Greek side, farmers intermittently blocked the border crossing with tractors, part of a protest over a planned pension reform by the Greek government to satisfy international creditors.
The border was effectively closed for migrants but regular car traffic had been flowing with minor disruption. Then, with patience running out, hundreds of migrants disembarked from their stationary buses and blocked the road, sitting on the tarmac and chanting "Macedonia, Macedonia!"
One group set out on foot, according to a Reuters cameraman at the scene.
Aid agencies and authorities had erected tents along the route to the border, but many male migrants slept outside on the ground, lighting camp fires against the winter morning chill.
MANY WOMEN AND CHILDREN
"It's not possible to get all these people into tents," said a refugee who gave his name as Sardar and said he was from Iraq.
"There aren’t enough facilities, so we spent the night on the ground."
More than 62,000 migrants, many of them refugees from the Syrian war, arrived in Greece last month by boat and dinghy from Turkey braving winter weather and rough seas, according to the the International Organization for Migration.
"(It) is many, many times what we saw a year ago in the previous January," IOM spokesman Joel Millman said in Geneva.
He added that there were more than 360 deaths among migrants in the waters off Greece, Turkey and Italy during the month.
More than 360 migrants died in seas off Greece, Turkey and Italy during the month. In the latest fatal crossing, nine people, including two babies, were found drowned off the coast of western Turkey on Tuesday.
More than 1 million people fleeing poverty, war and repression in the Middle East, Asia and Africa reached Europe’s shores last year, most heading for Germany.
Temperatures in the Balkans, having dropped below freezing in January, were back up into the teens this week, easing the journey for a growing proportion of women and children.
"From one in 10 who were children, now we are looking at a significant proportion of women and children, up to 60 percent,” Sarah Crowe, a spokeswoman for the U.N. children’s fund UNICEF, told a news briefing in Geneva.
Asked about the taxi protest, a police official in Macedonia, who declined to be named, told Reuters: "We’re working on the problem. We hope it will be resolved soon."
(Additional reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade and Kole Casule in Skopje; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Mark Heinrich)