As Though We Are Not Human Beings


Tariq, a 19-year-old Palestinian left his home in the Yarmouk Camp, close to the Syrian capital, Damascus, after his father was kidnapped in 2013: “I left so I could escape from the war and out of fear of being kidnapped, just like happened to members of my family, including my father. Also, I was afraid of the army. The situation of Palestinians is particularly difficult…Yarmouk camp is under siege. There is no food or anything.”

Tariq made the Aegean Sea crossing from Turkey to Greece and traveled onwards to Macedonia in the hope of finding refuge in EU countries to the north. Once in Macedonia, the police promptly arrested him and took him to the Reception Center for Foreigners, a detention facility in Skopje, known as Gazi Baba after the municipality where it is located. Tariq was detained for two months in Gazi Baba, sleeping on the floor, in corridors, without beds or mattresses, huddled in a blanket.  There were only two toilets for hundreds of detainees. Tariq could take a shower only once a week and there was only cold water. Every single day for two months, Tariq received one small can of tuna, a piece of bread, and sometimes cheese to last throughout the day. No one explained to him why he was detained or how long he would stay there.  He was not allowed to see a lawyer. He couldn’t even get in touch with his family.  And, Tariq experienced and witnessed gratuitous violence at the hands of police guards in Gazi Baba:

We would get beaten. If they see you in the hallway at night, they would beat you. And if you asked about your case, the boss, the chief, would beat you. He once found a mobile phone with a guy. He started beating him barbarically, by slapping him, kicking him. It was a brutal beating that resulted in nose-bleeding. There were others doing the beating, it was horrendous. They beat people too often. The beating itself is not the problem; it's rather the humiliation.

Tariq said he was “utterly shattered” mentally and emotionally after the two months he spent in Gazi Baba.


Men, women, and children from countries embroiled in conflicts such as Syria, Somalia, and Afghanistan have faced police violence and inhuman, degrading treatment and arbitrary detention in Macedonia.

Almost all have made an arduous journey, boarding overcrowded vessels to cross the Aegean Sea or making the land border crossings from Turkey to Greece and traveling onwards to northern EU countries through Greece, Macedonia, and Serbia. They typically reach Macedonia after walking for several days, often without enough food, water, or proper clothing. At least 26 people have been killed by trains on railway tracks in Macedonia since January 2015. Those apprehended by the police in Macedonia are often beaten with police batons, punched, kicked, and verbally insulted. They are either summarily returned to Greece amid more abuse or taken straight to detention where they are held in appalling conditions.

This report, based on 64 in-depth interviews with victims and witnesses, documents the abuses migrants and asylum seekers experience in Macedonia, a key transit country along the Balkans migration route and an aspiring member of the European Union (EU). 

Twenty-seven interviewees, including three children, said they experienced abuse at the hands of Macedonian officials at the border with Greece. They said that once inside Macedonian territory they were apprehended, physically beaten, and taken to unofficial border areas and ordered to cross back into Greece. Nine people, in separate, private interviews, said police and border police made them and others with them run a gauntlet between two rows of police officers who struck them with police batons on their backs, shoulders, and heads.

Until July 2015, Macedonia routinely and systematically detained migrants and asylum seekers—including children and pregnant women—in the Gazi Baba detention facility. After July, due to a change in the law discussed below, the numbers of those detained in the center dropped significantly. At the time of this report at least 5 migrants were being held there. On August 26, 2015, the Macedonian government told Human Rights Watch it will continue to use the center in the future. In in-depth interviews, 30 former detainees described ill-treatment by guards, including physical and verbal abuse as well as gender-based violence against women detainees; inhuman and degrading detention conditions, including overcrowding, insufficient access to food and drinking water, and unsanitary conditions. Conditions in Gazi Baba appeared to have had a negative impact on detainees’ mental and physical health.

While Macedonia justified its detention of migrants and asylum seekers as a legitimate response to establish their identity and to deter smuggling, in practice, what is happening constitutes arbitrary detention prohibited by international law. Prolonged administrative custody, without a justification or the possibility of meaningful review, violates the prohibition on arbitrary detention in article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Children enjoy particular protection under the law: migrant children should not be detained solely because of their immigration status, and where they are detained it must be as a last resort and for the shortest possible time.

According to Frontex, the EU’s external border agency, in 2014 over 66,000 irregular border crossings were detected at the borders of five Western Balkan countries, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia, an increase of 65 percent compared to 2013.  Frontex also said that 2014 saw a significant increase in the number of Syrians and Afghans using the Greece-Macedonia border. Few asylum seekers choose to apply for asylum in Macedonia, and those who do often leave before a decision on their application. Some of those Human Rights Watch interviewed said they wanted to apply for asylum in an EU country where they have relatives or friends, while others said that the ill-treatment by police had deterred them from seeking asylum in Macedonia.

Macedonia is a candidate for EU membership. Under the Stabilization and Association Agreement, a step on the way to accession, Macedonia is expected to gradually bring its laws into conformity with those of the EU, including with respect to its asylum system and treatment of migrants under chapter 24 of the EU Acquis.

The EU has thus far not taken a strong stance on Macedonia’s problematic treatment of migrants and asylum seekers. Its 2014 progress report on Macedonia urged the authorities to improve their efforts to combat increasing irregular migration “especially at the border with Greece and Serbia, which is the main onward transit route for illegal migration,” without acknowledging that the vast majority of people crossing the Macedonian border are from Syria. Nationals of Syria had the highest asylum approval rate of any nationality seeking asylum in the EU in 2014—95 percent. Furthermore, the progress report identified lack of capacity at the Gazi Baba facility but failed to criticize unsanitary conditions and ill-treatment.

In mid-2015, Macedonian authorities appeared to take steps to address some of the abuses documented in this report. In June, the national asylum law was amended to allow individuals who register the “intent” to apply for asylum with the police to remain lawfully in the country for 72 hours for the purposes of lodging an official asylum claim. The measure was designed to allow asylum seekers to travel legally through the country, as well as to dissuade them from risking their lives by walking the railway line. At this writing, it was unclear what effect this change would have on the police abuse, including at the border with Greece.  However it does seem to have diminished the systematic, arbitrary detention documented in this report, as many migrants and asylum seekers decided to register their “intent” to apply for asylum and travel legally through the country instead of using smuggling networks.

Following pressure by the Ombudsman’s Office and civil society groups such as the Macedonian Helsinki Committee and Legis, as well as the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, authorities also began transferring or releasing migrants and asylum seekers from the Gazi Baba detention center in June 2015. By mid-July, the facility was completely emptied for the purpose of its renovation and 50 people expected to appear as witnesses in criminal proceedings against smugglers were instead held in detention in the Asylum Center in Vizbegovo. By mid-August, there were no people held in detention in the Asylum Center in Vizbegovo. However, five migrants expected to appear as witnesses in criminal proceedings against a smuggler were held in detention in Gazi Baba.

More concerted steps are necessary to prevent and punish police abuses against migrants and asylum seekers on the streets and in detention in Macedonia. Authorities should put an immediate stop to police abuse against asylum seekers and migrants and ensure accountability for unjustified and excessive use of force.

Macedonia should ensure that migrants are detained only in exceptional circumstances, for the shortest period necessary, and with access to meaningful procedures to challenge their detention. The government should immediately cease detaining migrants and asylum seekers for the purpose of securing their testimony as witnesses in criminal proceedings and ensure that any detention for migration purposes is necessary and proportionate, with all the procedures and safeguards set out in international and regional human rights standards. Alternatives to detention should be available. Conditions in Gazi Baba or any new immigration detention facilities should comport with international standards and ensure humane and dignified treatment.

The European Commission, as part of monitoring compliance with the EU accession requirements, should hold Macedonia to its obligations to respect the human rights of migrants and asylum seekers as a precondition for EU membership. In dialogues with Macedonian authorities, EU representatives should stress the importance of respect for the absolute prohibition on torture, inhuman, cruel or degrading treatment by the police or other government agents of migrants and asylum seekers. 

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