They cross the Greek-Macedonian border in their tens of thousands every month, in the hope of reaching the European Union.
They are migrants and refugees, most often from Syria or Eritrea, but also from Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Iraq or Afghanistan, and Macedonia is one of their transit countries on the ’Balkan route’.
It receives less media attention than the Mediterranean, as it is less deadly, but it is fast becoming the most widely used route, as the German chancellor Angela Merkel recently pointed out.
A researcher at Amnesty International, Sian Jones, told Equal Times: “For the first time, the number of migrants arriving through Greece this year has exceeded the number trying their luck by sea, via Italy – 61,474 relative to 61,256 people.”
With Greece no longer in a position to cope with migratory pressure, the migrants most often continue their journey through Macedonia and Serbia towards Hungary, from where they make their way to western Europe.
Once in the Schengen zone, reaching Germany, Belgium or Sweden becomes easier.
But before reaching that point, the migrants and refugees first have to make it through what is undoubtedly one of the most dangerous legs of their journey: Macedonia, as highlighted by Amnesty International in a recent report, and by local organisations.
The law, it is true, has now been changed, allowing refugees to take public transport rather than being forced to walk along the railway tracks, with all the risks that entails – being knocked over by a train, kidnapped by criminal gangs or mistreated by hostile locals.
But they also face other problems, including the police brutality reported by Amnesty.
Scurrying through Macedonia
One of the poorest countries in Europe in terms of GDP per capita, Macedonia has become a major transit point for migrants and refugees in a relatively short space of time.
While reporting this story, the Equal Times crew witnessed many a disagreeable scene.
Like the anger of the man in his fifties, who we encounter while interviewing two Syrian migrants sleeping rough next to a railway track in the city of Veles.
“Why do you give them so much importance, you journalists?” he yells at us. “You think we don’t have other problems in this country? They can go to hell. I don’t care if there is a war in their country. Who’s going to defend my country?”
“They lie, and they have loads of money, at least €5000!” shouts the man, as the two Syrians, who do not understand the language, lower their heads. They would rather keep a low profile while they cross the country.
When asked what they think of the locals, they smile and do not complain. They just want to be able to pass through the country.
And the police? “No problem,” says one of them.
They ensure us that they have not had any trouble. One of them is headed for Brussels, where he has heard that refugees are respected, that they are given food and lodging, are entitled to €860 and are able to work.
His travel companion is going to join his brother in Germany, and hopes to run his own business there, just like he did in Syria.
The railway workers tell us they have witnessed plenty of police violence. A train driver tells us the story of a young Syrian who had decided to go back to Greece.
“He got off at Veles and asked us to call the police, to send him back to Greece,” he says. “He huddled up next to the radiator on the concourse. It was cold. When the police arrived, one of them headed towards him and kicked him in the back, for no reason. The young man started to cry. I asked why he was hitting him but he told me to keep out of it. Then they took him away.”
Mersiha Smailovic of Legis, a Macedonian NGO helping migrants in transit, confirms that most of them are afraid to talk about the abuses they suffer in Macedonia. They will only talk about it once they have crossed the border to Serbia.
The Macedonian ’Mother Teresa’
We meet a group of around twenty young people, mostly Syrians, with four children and two older ladies, exhausted from travelling on foot along the railway tracks leading them to Serbia.
[Editor’s note: At the time of reporting, Macedonia had not yet changed its extremely strict law forbidding undocumented migrants from taking public transport.]
They stop at the home of Lenche Zdravkin, the ’new Mother Teresa’ of Macedonia, as she is known locally. She lives with her large family in a house alongside the railway line in Veles.
“Last August, I noticed there were more and more migrants passing by my house every day, so I decided to take them something to eat and drink.”
Every day, Lenche keeps a lookout from her terrace and welcomes hundreds of migrants.
Some are afraid, so she places packages that she makes up herself for them on the low wall between her street and the train tracks. They are filled with food items that are easy to carry or non-perishable, such as croissants, canned food and water, as well as wipes and other toiletries.
She receives entire boxes, every day, from people all around the country who want to help the migrants, in the absence of a state policy. Even the UNHCR, the United Nations office in charge of refugees, works with her by providing information leaflets in Arabic for her to distribute to everyone she comes across.
Abdullah, a 26-year-old Syrian, agrees to talk to us. He used to be an accountant in the city of Latakiyah, and says he spent six months in prison for having taken part in a demonstration against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011.
“They came years later, confiscated my mobile, and found a photo of the demonstration on it and arrested me.” He does not want to have his photo taken because his family is still back home. He is determined to get to Germany and bring them over. “I will not leave them there.”
Amongst a group of children, aged between five and seven, there is a girl with a permanent smile, in spite of her torn shoes and the blisters on her feet.
Abdullah tells us she is the most motivated of all: “Even when the adults are fed up, she encourages us to keep going. And every day, when we get back on the road, she tells us not to worry, that she has ’asked Him to keep us safe’, pointing up towards the sky.”
New law, new problems
Despite the new law in Macedonia, which allows migrants to board on trains, another difficulty is emerging: the no man’s land between two borders.
The pressure is such that police only allow a limited number of people to cross the border every day, according to NGOs on the ground, leaving hundreds or even thousands of migrants to pile into the area between Macedonia and Greece. There, they wait to be able to cross the border, sometimes for weeks, and in the crushing heat of the Balkan summer.
Amnesty also warns that countries like Macedonia need to revise their asylum policy and increase their level of recognition for applications. But it is, above all, up to the European Union to tackle its “failed” migration policy, it says.
With the announcement of plans to build a wall between Hungary and Serbia, NGOs fear the worst for Macedonia.
As Voislav Stojanovski, of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Macedonia, warns: “With the wall in Hungary, and the attempts by France to close its border with Italy, we [along with Serbia] will become a buffer zone outside of Fortress Schengen.
The number of migrants will increase and we won’t have anywhere to put them. The humanitarian crisis is only just beginning.”
While it is widely accepted that the Macedonian authorities need to take concrete measures to deal with the flow of refugees, Stojanovski asserts that, ultimately, the Balkan chaos ultimately “suits the Europeans”.
The more the migrants find themselves trapped outside of the Schengen borders, the further they will be kept away from the perceived ’Eldorado’ of western Europe.
This argument is also backed by Jones, who says the EU “externalises its migration policy to countries of the Balkans. Furthermore, Serbia and Macedonia receive a limited sum of money that is mainly allocated to border control instead of being directed towards migration policies and the construction of facilities to house migrants.”
When the first wars erupted in Yugoslavia more than twenty years ago, European countries “made the protection of refugees possible. Everybody was getting temporary protection, but things have changed. A lot of political parties now promote this anti-immigration feeling.”
In Macedonia, a country with a fragile democracy, authoritarian tendencies and widespread poverty, nobody is ignoring the possibility for tensions to erupt.
In the vein of the Valletta Conference this coming November, another European meeting will be held this autumn in Budapest, dedicated to the migration issue in the Balkans.
It is hoped the meeting will contribute to a growing awareness on the issue, something which is particularly urgent at this time, given that the region is about to become the main transit hub for migrants from Africa and Asia.