The Road for Refugees: Rejected, Refused, Returning Home

Last week, my friends and I went on a road trip around the Balkans, armed with a tiny rental car and the world’s most powerful passport. At the recommendation of our other friends, we contacted LEGIS, an NGO based in Skopje, and organised a visit to a refugee camp in Tabanovce. There, we met humans who taught us that passports enable you to go past borders, but courage and strength empower you to go beyond limits. 

Traveling to the Camp

We had driven down the same highway several days ago, en route from Skopje to Belgrade. Our biggest concern then, was how we would map our way to the Airbnb once we crossed the border and lost our Internet access.

The day of our visit to the Tabanovce Refugee Camp, however, we exited the Kumanovo highway just before the Serbian border.

The journey for the refugees who arrive at Tabanovce overflows with concerns, against which, ours is trivial. Refugees are squeezed into lifeboats that are too small to fit all of them. Once on the continent, they are shoved onto cargo trains where they spend nights. Finally, when the trains stop along the railway, they are hurled out where they are greeted by the fences of the camp. Throughout the journey, the refugees are but like stock and cargo, to be transported from one place to another, treated with not much more respect than the sacks of soil on which they rest their heads.

Despite the extreme discomfort, the ones who make it onboard consider themselves lucky. They are the ones who can afford to pay the smugglers anything between €500 to €1000 to get a fraction of a space, to get a glimmer of escape from the situation at home. The unlucky ones find themselves roused at 4am and thrown back onto boats returning to Greece, with no explanation.

The Camp

The camp is divided into three sections. The front-most section, after the gates, is reserved for administrative offices shared by NGOs like Legis, UNHCR, ICRC and IOM. That day, 2 new refugees from Pakistan were given their orientation to the camp. The long-term ‘residents’, Amir and Azil* help to translate for these men. The new refugees are a fresh reminder of the journey that they made to arrive in Tabanovce. For two months, Amir and Azil traveled more than 40 000km by foot from Pakistan to Macedonia. They would sleep in the day and walk for 9 hours at night, when the air was cooler. Every border that they passed represented a greater hope for reprieve, and with it, a greater risk of deportation. Rejected by one state to another, they decided that enough was enough, and have requested for asylum here in Macedonia. Macedonia is not known for its wealth of opportunities but it is, nonetheless, a new lease of life. Amir cannot help but wonder if these new men had filled their bottles in the same rivers, bought bread from the same bakers, and dodged the same border police.

The newcomers will eventually join the other men residing in the middle section of the camp, where shipping containers have been revamped into bedrooms, common rooms, and a pantry. One of them had served as a mosque, with an Iraqi father acting as the imam. Here is where Khaled* spends most of his days. He contemplates the past way more than the future, simply because the future that he had imagined in Serbia has dissipated into little more than a pipe dream.

“There is nothing here for me,” he says in Arabic.

He anticipates my next question, of what his next steps will be, and adds,

“I will go back to Greece to find work, and it will be easy for my girlfriend from Kumanovo to visit me there. You can’t live for 5 years with no girl.”

When he is in the camp though, he prefers to be alone in his room. It is difficult to get along with the rest of the refugees as there is no one else from Libya. And these are better days.

The camp is quieter since the closure of the Balkan Humanitarian Corridor, due to an agreement between Turkey and the EU. There are only five men who share the space built for 500. One of the staff recalls a time when space was a commodity. When the Balkan Route first closed, refugees were refused entry to Serbia and found themselves trapped behind the border. The camp was overstretched to accommodate 2000 people. The giant multi-purpose tents at the back were cleared out, but even then, each of their 3 tents could hold a maximum of 300 people. Friction is inevitable when you are rubbing shoulders with that many people equally frustrated and hopeless as you are.

Now, the tents at the back section are used as sports halls where the refugees find their main source of entertainment. Here, the only thing that they have to focus on getting past is the narrow three-feet goal post, demarcated using a pair of plastic cones. The instant camaraderie between people playing football together – this is a phenomenon that I can only spectate and attempt to understand. You do not need a common language to share an admiration for Lionel Messi. You do need, however, a semblance of agility. Lacking this, I take my uncoordinated feet on a stroll outside instead.

Leaving the Camp

From the edge of the camp, you get a magnificent view of the sunset, against the contours of the mountains. I have always been fond of sunsets. There is comfort in knowing that it is universal – of all the differences in this world, at least our sun is the same. Yet, this smog of serenity blankets the desperation and desolation of the refugees.

For us, the breath-taking sunset marks the quieting of the day, a time to be thankful for all that we have. For the refugees, I suspect that the breath-shortening anxiety never quite goes away, and that the silence of the evening amplifies their worries at its loudest.

Still, where the sun shines, on the border, there is optimism. Those who make it across the border and find asylum beyond Macedonia sometimes keep in contact with the staff via Whatsapp or email. One of the staff, Fitznik, tells us about a special connection he felt with a 6-year old Syrian girl, who passed by Tabanovce 2 years ago with her family. Before leaving the camp for the city, he asked if she wanted anything from the city. In fluent Turkish (which she picked up after transiting in Turkey for 4 months), she replied that she wanted nothing but an education. She wants to learn. Books are not allowed in the camp so teaching is challenging. Today, she attends a school in Germany.

Returning Home

For many refugees, Western Europe is not their final destination. It is where they can receive education that will equip them with the necessary knowledge and skills so that one day, they can return home to end the war and improve the lives of the people who never made it out.

When the sun sets, the staff lead us out the gates where we flash our passes to border police and make our way down the same highway. On the same night, we will make our way to the airport and back home while the refugees continue to think about their homes. Even if they do make it back to the place where they once lived, it is rare that these places feel like the safe and secure homes they once knew. Same homesickness, but I know when mine will be cured while they wonder if theirs will ever.

* Names of refugees have been changed.