Refugees Migration Democracy. The faces of solidarity!

Dr. Driton  Maliqi  in International conference: Refugees Migration Democracy. The faces of solidarity! Civil Society and Activism. Panel 2: Civil Society - International comparison


The NGO “Legis” which I represent has been helping the refugees since the crisis began. We were the first NGO to provide organized response since the autumn of 2014, providing food and NFIs, medical services, legal advice and support, and everything that was needed at any time, since there was no support from the state, INGOs, Agencies. In order to better understand how we were managing the situation on the ground, I will divide the refuge crisis into 4 phases:

I phase (until 19th June 2015): This is how everything started, there were large number of people arriving, but there was no support on the ground except for volunteers and untrained personnel. The Law on Asylum and Temp protection didn’t allow refugees entering from Greece to register and transit the country on legal manner, so they were forced to walk for weeks from the south to the north, following the railway tracks, in imminent danger of railway accidents (which happened too many times), attacks from various groups, human trafficking, kidnapping, Gender Bases Violence, Detention. In that time, LEGIS organized mobile teams that were providing food and water, basic NFIs, the very needed medical support for wounds of walking, violence, respiratory infections, exhaustion. Legal support was also provided, especially to detained refugees. In that time there were more than 400 peoplel detained in the GAZI BABA facility, with capacity of 150. There was no media presence, except for the train accidents, which was the only time the Macedonian public can hear about Syrian, Afghan, Iraqi people dying on the train tracks in the country. But nobody seemed to care. LEGIS tool the role to change this, a campaign for awareness raising was launched trough social and traditional media, which resulted in awakening the civil society sector, but also the regular citizens. Volunteers started to activate and help, from the town of Gevgelija, to Miravci, Demir Kapija, Veles, Skopje, Kumanovo, and on the highway from south to north, there were groups of people, some connected with NGOs, some just private citizens, that provided assistance to the men, women and children on the move through Macedonia. Amending the Law on Asylum was also one of the main challenges, but the advocacy campaign LEGIS leaded resulted with success and introduction of the Intention of Asylum instrument, which solved the danger of the transit trough the country, and allowed the people to have access to public transport, free medical care and encouraged greater involvement from the rest of the civil society, national and internationals, since the people crossing and then registering were not, as they say: ILLEGAL anymore (we say Irregular), so there is no danger in helping them.

This brought us to the second phase:

II phase (19th of June-19th of November 2015) – when we migrated to the borders, the south to Greece – Gevgelija train station and later on TC Vinojug, and Tabanovce train station to the border with Serbia, later on TC Tabanovce. Even though the change in legislation improve the legal side of the response, the humanitarian response was still not proper to satisfy the ever growing need. LEGIS was mainly functioning on private donations during the whole 2015, there was always lack of resources, there were no big international organizations, there was no support from the country. In this period, almost 600.000 people transited Macedonia, according to the UNHCR. The entered walking and arrived at the Train Station in Gevgelija, never knowing when and if the can be registered, when and if the train will come. No shelter, not even shade, with temperatures rising up to 40 C º, exhausted men women and children were queuing in endless queues, frustrations will often rise to fights, which will lead to beating by police. Till September, there was no camp in the south of Macedonia, and there was no organized registration. Only one third was actually getting registered. Than the train will come and people will rush in, smashing each other and suffocating children and babies, in fear of border closure and lack of information, they were desperate to progress as fast as possible. The 25 € per person trains were so packed and full that the train ride could last to 6hours, for less than 200km. There was no protection actor in the trains, fights would break out of frustrations from the horrible conditions, women and children were in danger of violence. The train would stop on the north border with Serbia, Tabanovce train station (which became an official camp in November 2015), managed by LEGIS team of volunteers. People would exit and wonder where they are, only fields were around, not even toilets till September. LEGIS team was on the site, sharing information about the road ahead, providing food, water, transportation for people with disabilities, and kind and helping hand. From September, international volunteers started pouring in, and then international organizations, bringing some additional funding, but the rising numbers of people transiting didn’t allow improvements to be noticed. In October, the numbers got as high as 15.000 people transiting the country daily. The autumn months brought the rain and the cold, and some days I remember that there were no more raincoats available to be bought in Macedonia. Our field volunteers often had to use creativity in lack of resources, for example making thousands of raincoats out of plastic sheeting per day, or distributing wheelbarrows in lack of wheelchairs. LEGIS teams were present 24/7 at the sites, boarding every train and sending off every group as they arrived in the north. Despite all the difficulties and lack of resources, this was the most open and most secure times to be on route.

Than the restrictions started happening, and the III phase began (19th of November 2015 to 7th of March 2016). Suddenly people seeking international protection, seeking a life, started being discriminated on the basis of nationality. Registration and allowance to continue was only possible for Syrians, Iraqi and Afghani people. Europe and Western Balkans countries, including Macedonia started breaking international law and not allowing people access to protection. Refugees resorted to the smuggling channels once more, exposing themselves to major safety and security and protection risks. Kidnappings became popular again, and extorting money from family members in country of origin. Unfortunately, due to lack of trust, fear of detention and unwillingness to spend more time in Macedonia, this cases were never reported to the authorities. The response in Macedonia was concentrated in the entrance TC and the exit TC, run by authorities now and with more and more restrictive policies towards the non SIA ( Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan) nationalities.  Suddenly we had people walking on the highway again, and suddenly pressure of police authorities was great on humanitarians and volunteers trying to assist this people. Business with false documents was blooming, fences were being build in the south border and around the transit centers. Push-backs started to become practice. The restrictive situation was slowly escalating to the point of complete closure of borders on 7th of March.

IV phase (7th March 2016 ) Borders were declared closed and complete restriction on the route was declared. No onwards movements were allowed. Thousands of people found themselves stranded in different countries of the Western Balkan Route, in camps, improperly equipped to ensure life with dignity or in fields. People in desperation started using services of smugglers and human traffickers trough alternative and dangerous routes.  A total of 4,784 smuggled persons have been reported in 260 incidents on 56 locations, from November 2015 to October 2016. Massive pushbacks and deportations became an everyday occurrence. 18.480 people were pushed back since January 2016 from Macedonia. Access to asylum procedures has become restricted as well.  According to the latest amendments of the Law on Asylum and Temporary Protection from April 2016, the request for asylum, filed from person in request to enter or entered irregularly on the territory of Macedonia, from 3rd safe country, member of EU, member of NATO or member of EFTA, will be considered clearly insubstantial, thus legalizing push-backs and deportations to all of the surrounding countries, but mainly to Greece. In July this year, LEGIS, together with UNHCR, the Ombudsman and MYLA officially proposed amendment of this law, which was not yet taken into consideration. LEGIS opened operation in Lipkovo area, well known for smuggling activity, where we provide basic protection and humanitarian aid since August 2016, as well as monitor human rights abuses.

Restrictions were not only applied for refugees and migrants, but also for NGO staff. Restriction in time of operation happened soon after the closure of the route, allowing staff to be present only until 19:00h in the transit camps. Restrictions regarding distributions were applied as well: the state decided all NGOs to give the items they plan to distribute to the Red Cross. The transit centers became authoritative and unpleasant, battlefield of NGOs and Authorities, where Human Rights and well-being of vulnerable groups was least important. It seemed like the authorities wanted everyone with good sense and care for the refugees out of the camps. LEGIS run the normal activities in provision of aid, and added psychosocial support, Hygiene Promotion, stress relief and recreational activities. Yet each activity and it’s timing had to be approved by the authorities, and lists and schedules of activities not really happening on field level were the basis of coordination among NGOs. At one point, it seemed like the people in the camps would not be able to eat and sleep because they so much going on On paper. In reality, depression and hopelessness is spreading among the people. Impossibility to obtain a legal status, being in limbo for 9 months now, without freedom of movement, has a very negative impact on the psychosocial state of the refugees in the camps in Macedonia. They became uninterested and even hostile towards NGOs staff, with though that they are hostages, they are the basis for projects and money for NGOs and the state. What they want is freedom. To move, to reunite with their families, to start rebuilding their lives in safe environment.

In the case of Macedonia, and in the case of LEGIS, for a long time, we did take over the functions and the mandate the state has, according to the Geneva conventions and International law – to protect vulnerable population, especially population in need of international protection. The state became active very late, but even so, it doesn’t necessarily fulfill its mandate. Partly this is because of lack of resources, which eventually came from international donors and big INGOs, partly because of lack of capacity, not having properly trained staff to deal with emergency nor to put in place procedures that will ensure protection and respect of human rights(even though refugee crisis are not unknown for the country), but mostly because of lack of interest and lack of will, due to the complex political, social and economic situation Macedonia is in and the actual decision making regarding the crisis being done by EU.

LEGIS was the initiator to involve the country to help the refugees on the all aspects. We knocked all the doors of the institutions, we searched all the legal options and proved that the institutions have to take action and to make the journey and the situation better for the refugees.

Most of the times we had good cooperation with the institutions considering the fact that we involved them somehow in the process, but very often this cooperation was one way, and we would often find closed doors and restricted areas. We are always persistent and address to the authorities the issues we see on field level, but our recommendations for improvement are often perceived as critique to their work, which puts the organization and the staff and volunteers on a difficult position. The Human Rights Watch Report on police violence on refugees in Macedonia in 2015, where LEGIS was one of the contributors, put the organization in spotlight of the authorities, perceiving us as traitors and snitches. Our relation with the refugees, and our attitude to always protect them and give them the possibility to decide for themselves, the empathy, puts us in the spot light as people working against the state’s interests. All this contributes to the relation we have with the institutions, be as good as they are, the challenges are many as well.

LEGIS is active for more than two years in this refugee crisis, providing aid and assistance to the people in need. Even though we started as volunteers, we had to become and became professionals in managing the crisis and providing assistance. We learned that solidarity can be contagious, having hundreds of volunteers in 2015. Building the capacities of the volunteers is very important, in order to have reliable staff that can make fast and safe decisions that influence thousands of people, because we had to do so many times. Refugees should be treated and be able to live in dignity as human beings, fully enjoying their human rights. One cannot be discriminated on the basis of nationality not to be a refugee. Snowden is a refugee from America for example. The refugees are not helpless given the possibility to protect and act for themselves. Organizations should invest more in strengthening the capacities of the refugees, giving them the power to make their own decisions, to run their own living places, to have the freedom to move and express themselves. Giving them the opportunity to be employed, even without determined status will help them more that giving them the best food 3times a day in a camp. Living in camp run by authorities puts them in even more hopeless position. Communities instead of camps, where people can be responsible, build towards a normal life, where the children can study and play in parks instead of fenced out camps.

One of the most important lessons that the world learned, especially with building of fences, the closure of the route and the EU-Turkey deal, is that, REFUGEES WILL NOT STOP COMING. As long as there are wars, refugees will seek protection and safety. And this is guaranteed to them by international law. Instead of building fences we should build bridges of humanity.