MACEDONIA

Migrants 'attacked' and 'robbed' crossing Macedonia to reach EU

Migrants wait to be handed passes in the streets of Presevo, a Serbian town near the country's border with Macedonia. Photo taken by our Observer.
Migrants wait to be handed passes in the streets of Presevo, a Serbian town near the country's border with Macedonia. Photo taken by our Observer.

More than 50,000 migrants have travelled through Macedonia since the beginning of 2015. Many of them pile up at the Serbian border. From there, only Serbia separates them from Hungary and free movement within the European Union. With Macedonian authorities overwhelmed by the rising tide of migrants, ordinary Macedonians have rallied round to help provide basic necessities for those desperately trying to reach the EU. Read more...

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More than 50,000 migrants have travelled through Macedonia since the beginning of 2015. Many of them pile up at the Serbian border. From there, only Serbia separates them from Hungary and free movement within the European Union. With Macedonian authorities overwhelmed by the rising tide of migrants, ordinary Macedonians have rallied round to help provide basic necessities for those desperately trying to reach the EU.

Every year, migrants in search of a decent life undertake one of the most dangerous journeys on the planet. Forced to flee poverty, violence and brutal conflicts like those ravaging Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, they take flight in the hope of reaching the European Union. Many migrants arrive in rickety boats on the shores of Greece, before trying their luck again by crossing through Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary. Once inside the EU, the bloc's principle of free movement makes it easier for them to try and settle in France, Germany, or - despite being outside of the EU Schengen Area - the UK.

In order to put some sort of legal framework on the growing number of migrants passing through its territory, on June 18, Macedonia passed a new law that limits their time in the country to 72 hours. It also gives them the right to use the country's public transport network. Until then, our Observer says that scores of migrants could only get around on foot or by riding bikes. From now on, they'll easily be able to reach Kumanovo, the last town that separates them from the Serbian border. Migrants then cross illegally in order to get to Presevo, the first city on the Serbian side.

"These people have walked for months on end, slept by the roadside, all while having to look after their children and constantly worrying for their future"

Aleksandra is a designer who lives in Kumanovo, a Macedonian city on the border with Serbia. As a volunteer for NGO 'Legis', she has been helping migrants for months.

For several years, migrants have been crossing through Macedonia, yet people didn't really talk about it. But the recent influx of them has led to more media coverage of the situation. That made me want to try to do something.

We obtained the right to use Kumanovo's mosque, and we well and truly transformed it into a refugee centre. Until the law limiting the amount of time migrants could spend in Macedonia came into force, we were welcoming around 600 people per day. These people have walked for months on end, slept by the roadside, all while having to look after their children and constantly worrying for their future. They're exhausted and the journey has taken its toll physically. It's even tougher for pregnant women and old people. We feed them, give them water and dispense as much as aid as we can. Many have blisters that have worsened and turned into real injuries that can be quite shocking. We take those who need the most help to hospital. Macedonian doctors begin by raising objections but they always finish by treating them.

Migrants at Kumanovo mosque. Photo by our Observer.

Volunteers from the NGO Legis care for migrants, many of whom suffer from blisters. Photo courtesy of Legis.

"It's not uncommon for migrants to be assaulted or fall victim to extortion"

As a result of the new law, we only shelter a few dozen refugees. They can only stay a few days, so they head straight for the border. By taking public transport, they're a little bit safer.

On the road that leads from the Macedonian capital Skopje, it wasn't uncommon for migrants either on foot or on bikes to be assaulted or to become the victims of extortion carried out by armed gangs. The big groups of migrants—which can be made up of a hundred or more people—don’t have anything to fear. But others travel in smaller groups.

Contrary to what one may believe, the migrants often have lots of money on them. They take everything they have in order to pay the smugglers and to later build a new life. One migrant who I helped in Kumanovo had been robbed of 2,000 Euros. He had to spend several months in the mosque. He helped the new arrivals, translated, begged for some money... eventually, he was able to leave again and, recently, he reached Germany. I was really happy for him.

"Sometimes they camp for several days outside the police station to be given a pass"

They always cross the border illegally. Customs don't let anyone pass... at least officially. In reality, it's fairly common to see customs agents watching migrants pass without moving a finger. Once in Serbia, the migrants often have to camp in deplorable conditions outside the police station in order to get a similar 72-hour pass. After they have the official pass, they're able to use a refugee camp in Presevo, the closest Serbian town to the border.

Conditions there are also horrific: it has two tents and was set up by the Red Cross on a plot of waste ground. The migrants live amongst waste near a massive pile of rubbish. At best, they eat twice a day, and the toilets are always blocked.

Very basic refugee camp in Presevo, Serbia. Photo taken by our Observer.

Migrants even sleep in the streets of Presevo. Photo taken by our Observer.

I'm very disappointed by the policies taken with regards to migrants, particularly by the United Nations, and by the lack of support shown by the authorities here. So we try to give people passing through what we can before they continue their tough journey: once they reach Hungary, it's up to them to find and pay a smuggler who can get them into Austria without being caught.

The ordeal facing migrants in Macedonia and Serbia could get even worse if Hungary decides to go ahead with its project to erect a 175-kilometre-long barrier right along the country's border. The initiative has sparked fierce criticism from the Serbian government, which fears being inundated with an incontrollable number of migrants. But Hungary's proposal wouldn't be the first of its kind in Europe. Greece and Bulgaria have already built walls along parts of their borders with Turkey, which has lowered considerably the influx of migrants there. No doubt that's also contributed to the growing influx through Macedonia.

There were 60 million refugees scattered through the world in 2014. Amnesty International says the situation is the worst since WWII.  Ten years ago, there were slightly over half that number. At the end of June, Union European leaders decided not to pursue a European Commission plan, which would have forced other EU member states to take and settle migrants who arrive in Italy and Greece.

Post written with France 24 journalist Corentin Bainier (@cbainier).