Macedonia Refugee Camp Braces for Winter

Sinisa Jakov Marusic  
BIRN  Skopje

Several hundred metres of harsh unpaved road separate the refugee camp on the Macedonian southern border from the outskirts of the town of Gevgelija.

Movement there is restricted and only persons with special police permits are allowed near or inside the camp that is run by the police and humanitarian organizations.

“This is only for the registration and the transit of those who are arriving. You couldn’t fit 3,000 people inside if they were all standing,” Aleksandar, a UNICEF humanitarian worker that we met inside, said.

At last week’s summit in Brussels, the EU presented a plan to ease the burden of refugees coming from war-torn Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. The plan envisages accommodating some 50,000 refugees in Greece and another 50,000 in the other Balkan countries that lie on the refugee transit route to Germany.

However, Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov warned the summit that his country could only accept some 2,000 refugees over a longer period.

At the camp near Gevgelija, works are ongoing on enlarging sanitary capacities but no one is talking about possibly expanding the camp itself.

Meanwhile, police are gathering and directing the newly arrived refugees at the border towards the camp's entry point.

From there, groups of about 50 refugees are formed and introduced one by one into the first tent that serves as an info post where usually Farsi or Urdu translators address the people.

The groups are made up mostly of youngsters and entire families. Here and there an older person can be spotted.

After remaining there for a few minutes, the group is transferred to another tent where they are checked by police and issued with a three-day transit visa with which they can continue their journey north towards the Serbian border.

“Today we expect from 3,000 to 5,000 [refugees]. But we have had days with more than 20,000. They are all Afghans today,” a police officer in sunglasses who is maintaining order at the site, said.

A father carries his child on his shouldersPhoto by: Sinisa Jakov Marusic

August saw chaos when police tried to prevent thousands of refugees from entering Macedonia. They used shock grenades and brute force as the refugees broke past barricades. Journalists’ reports of the incidents put Macedonia under international scrutiny.

“These days there is nothing for you journalists here,” the police officer noted, smiling. He was referring to the lack of shocking footage opportunities that made those past incidents world headlines.

Inside the first tent we met 16-year-old Ramazan from the Afghan city of Herat. He was visibly tired.

“My town is destroyed. Everything there is destroyed… I lost my father there,” he said as he bowed his head. In broken English that he says he learned in school, he said it took him and his older brother’s family, with whom he is traveling, a month to get to Macedonia.

After completing formalities with the authorities, the refugees have a few hours to get some food or drinks distributed by humanitarian workers, take care of their children in the nursery tent, take a bath or simply rest.

A tent run by UNICEF provides toys for children and fresh diapers and baby food for the youngest. It is decorated with children’s drawings.

Groups are then formed again and escorted to the makeshift train station that is also part of the transit camp.

Macedonian railways 'exploiting' refugees:

Staff of the state-owned railway company charge refugees as they board the filthy trains | Photo by: Sinisa Jakov Marusic

The train ticket that will take them to the Serbian border in the north costs 25 euro per person. Staff of the state-owned railway company charge them as they board the filthy trains.

“The more of them [refugees], the better!” one ticket seller tells his colleague, unaware he is being watched by a small group of journalists.

It seems nothing has changed since September, when the authorities said they would investigate whether and why the rail company had hiked fares from five to 25 euro for migrants.

The Crisis Management Centre told BIRN this following accusations by human rights groups that the state was exploiting refugees by charging them such high sums for transport.

“Five trains leave this place per day on average. Each has room for 200 people but they are stacking 500 and up to 1,000 people inside. Each pays 25 euro, so you do the math," a humanitarian worker who wished to stay anonymous, told BIRN.

“This place is practically being paid for by refugees… It is a lie that we [Macedonia] are spending a million euro per week on them,” he added.

The alternative is to take a taxi or a bus, stationed several hundred meters from the camp, though the price per person remains the same, 25 euro.  

Volunteers from Habitat for Humanity, UNICEF, Legis and the Macedonian Red Cross say conditions are better and more organized than they were in summer and that, as winter approaches, getting in warm clothing is becoming the priority.

“But the country is not interested [in investing more],” an interlocutor from the Red Cross told us. “There is not enough electricity for instance. We need a new transformer station but nobody is helping. Without electricity there is not enough heat.”

While the EU talks about setting up refugee camps across the Balkans, UNICEF recently warned that the Balkan countries are not ready to maintain the transit of refugees in winter conditions.

Mersiha Smailovic, from the local NGO Legis, which is on the ground helping refugees, recently told Voice of America that “Macedonia is a transit country and it should stay that way.

“The UN marked Macedonia as an ‘unsafe country’ for asylum seekers and as such, it has no conditions for keeping refugees.

"We should not forget the last Human Right Watch report [in September],” she added, which slated the Macedonian police for physically abusing migrants transiting the country.

While refugees in their thousands quietly pass the border town, Gevgelija's mayor, Ivan Frangov, complains of the mess caused by the taxis  and buses that transport the refugees. He proposed an alternative solution.

“We need a second official border crossing opened at the place that now serves as the refugee entry point. That would relieve the burden on the town and speed thing up,” Frangov said.