Stressed and stuck in Macedonia: Balkans' hidden migrant story

Tabanovce is not the kind of place a traveller would choose to stop on a long journey. The main feature of this small village close to Macedonia's northern border with Serbia is an unlovely railway siding.

But hundreds of people fleeing conflict have found themselves stuck here for weeks or even months following the official closure of the so-called Balkan route in March.

Instead of quickly passing through the transit camp next to the railway lines and on to trains bound for Serbia and the EU beyond, they have been stranded in what amounts to an oversized, al fresco waiting room.

The camp is an arid facility, with no trees to provide shade. The white gravel paths reflect the sun, as do the pale-hued accommodation huts, giving the place a bleached-out, desolate feel.

But the residents of the Tabanovce Transit Camp currently call it home.

"They missed the last train," says Muhammad Arif, the representative in Macedonia of the UN's refugee agency, the UNHCR.

Now the people here are caught in an unenviable situation.

With the Balkan route officially closed, there is no simple way forward towards the European Union. But, as Mr Arif points out, almost all of them are fleeing conflict in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, so returning home is out of the question as well.

"They wanted to continue their journey but they're stuck here. They're getting frustrated and depressed - the blockage causes stress and trauma for them."

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The metal roof of the camp's open-sided canteen at least provides some welcome shade in the middle of the day. Summer temperatures rise well past 30C - and sometimes beyond 40C.

The residents linger after lunch to chat. There is, after all, little else to do.

They are a mixture of solo travellers and family groups.

At the time of the BBC's visit, the youngest resident was just eight days old: Mahdis Azizi, whose mother Simin Afshar had travelled from Herat in Afghanistan with three other daughters, ranging in age from three to 12 years old.

"We'll stay here until the authorities make a decision," says Simin.

"We were very unlucky. When we arrived the border was closed; we just got stuck here. Others had the financial ability to leave. Lots of families have gone. But I'm a woman heading the family, I was pregnant - and I'm out of money."

As Simin notes, numbers in the camp have fallen. There were 1,400 when the last train departed from Tabanovce in March. Now there are fewer than 100.

Some found an official way forward and have been able to join family members already in EU countries. Others decided to short-circuit the process, and paid people-smugglers to get them across the borders.

The traffickers are not known for their scruples and Simin says she would never consider dealing with them.

"I would not take that risk with my daughters. Even if I had the money, I couldn't trust anyone."

'Boom' in smuggling

Rights workers find it hard to contain their exasperation. The countries along the Balkan route may have declared it closed, but the flow of people continues.

Authorities in Serbia report around 500 crossings every day. And instead of travelling safely in official trains from one border to the next, people are making deals with criminal networks.

"The smuggling business is booming," says the UNHCR's Muhammad Arif.

"There needs to be a more humane way, otherwise these people running for their lives will be left in the hands of smugglers who can extort, beat and rob them. These countries have to handle the situation better."

Some at Tabanovce have taken the advice of human rights lawyer Arben Gudacion on how to apply for asylum in Macedonia.

But almost all of them still have their sights set on the EU - and that desperation leads them to take considerable risks.

"Especially after the borders closed, we can see they're more vulnerable, because they have to go through smugglers," says Mr Gudaci.

"They go over mountains; they walk for several days. Many refugees have been attacked by the population or smugglers. They were robbed and beaten."

So perhaps it is little wonder that the remaining residents at Tabanovce view staying put as the least worst option. Compared with the horrors which many of them left behind, a few months in a railway siding does not seem like such an ordeal.

"In Afghanistan we did not feel secure," says Simin Afshar's 12-year-old daughter, Simira.

"There was fighting every day there. Here we feel safe. At least we can walk around without fear. But in Afghanistan we could not walk to the end of the street - it was full of risks." 

The summer of 2015 saw tumultuous scenes in Macedonia. While they may not be repeated, there is still a hidden story on the Balkan route, with thousands of people desperate to reach Western Europe.

Some of them are on the move, some of them stuck in camps like Tabanovce. But all of them are determined to get somewhere better.