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After the men come the mothers?

Barbara Wesel, Gevgelija / sms
January 28, 2016

Brussels could call on Macedonia, not a member of the EU, to secure the bloc's border. As more women and children try to reach western Europe, Barbara Wesel reports that Skopje is evaluating its options.

Mazedonien Flüchtlinge Tabanovce
Image: DW/B. Wesel

Macedonia again temporarily closed its border with Greece late on Wednesday, leaving some 2,000 people on the Greek side of the border. Officials in Skopje said the move came after some 600 people were stuck waiting to enter Serbia from Macedonia. The intermittent opening and closing of borders has led to consternation for Balkan politicians and headaches in many European capitals.

But the nations along the so-called Balkan route, the path many refugees follow through Greece and Balkan countries to western Europe, stay in constant contact. It's an attempt by authorities in Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia to keep a semblance of control over the stream of people fleeing the Middle East and North Africa to Europe.

"We should all act at the same time - then we will all have fewer problems," said Anastasija Ilieska, who is in charge of refugee affairs as deputy secretary at the Macedonian Interior Ministry.

Alesandrija Iliesku
Ilieska said she wants a coordinated effort to cope with the refugee crisisImage: DW/B. Wesel

Ilieska added that she and her counterparts in other Balkan countries and at the European Union discuss the situation at least once a week.

"We exchange information about the situation along the route, how many people have crossed the border, about the security situation on the borders and whether we need more border police," she told DW.

Hungarian border police as well as authorities from Slovakia and Serbia are currently helping guard the Macedonian-Greek border as Macedonian police are overwhelmed by the number of people crossing the border. Macedonians have also relied on Hungarian assistance to continue the construction of a border fence.

Transit to northern Europe

Since Macedonia decided at the end of November to only allow refugees fleeing conflict, such as those from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, to transit across its borders, the number of people looking to enter the country has dropped.

"Last year there were 10,000 people per day, now there are only about 2,000," Ilieska said, adding that the cold weather has also reduced the number of people willing to travel outside.

As long as Austria and Germany do not close their borders, officials in Skopje said they would continue to organize the refugees' transit to Western Europe.

"They have to sign a paper that they want to travel to Germany, Austria or Sweden," Ilieska said. "They show that at the border and are allowed to keep going."

Map of the Balkan refugee route

But the politician also said that there are difficulties confirming the migrants' identity and that there has been an uptick in assuming the identity of deceased Syrians.

"Last year we turned away 12,000 people at the border to Greece," Ilieska said. "For some time now, there have been many Moroccans among them. Many of them then return from Athens with counterfeit passports and even fake certificates of education. Then they simply come back here."

Border police are only able to uncover and stop a small portion of those traveling with fake papers. At the border crossing near Gevgelija, Macedonia, border police only check the papers provided to refugees by the Greek authorities. Then they wave the people through. Scanners have been set up at the Serbian border to prevent weapons from being brought into the country, but police there seemed most concerned with getting people through the scanner and on their way to western Europe.

Fleeing families

"There are currently a lot of families, and especially children, making the trip," Ilieska said. "We see about 40 percent men, 40 percent children and 20 percent women."

While Ilieska said she did not know exactly what was causing it, she said there has been a change in the demographics of people crossing the border, which she said she suspects is the result of single men having traveled first to Europe and their wives and children following later.

The change in people crossing the border has also brought with it new difficulties for authorities and aid organizations. An increasing number of people are crossing the border "illegally" in wheelchairs while the higher number of pregnant women traveling require additional medical attention.

A doctor at the Serbian transit camp in Presevo said women in their eighth month of pregnancy were unwilling to leave the groups they were traveling with and would only stop their trips for a short time to receive medical care, despite the fact that they should be in a hospital. Doctors have also said they were unable to treat children with bronchitis and other infections properly, as their families wanted to move on as quickly as possible.

Refugees in Macedonia
Families seem to prefer traveling sick to western Europe than seeking treatment in the BalkansImage: DW/B. Wesel

And what happens if the borders are closed? Most refugees do not seem to know anything about the European political debate that will likely decide their fates. Ilieska, on the other hand, is keenly aware of the discussions happening among politicians in Brussels and European capitals - particularly plans to increase security along the external borders of the European Union, which Macedonia is not a member of.

Ilieska emphasized that the refugees want to travel mainly to Germany, but should Austria and Germany close their borders, then Macedonia would also be forced to re-evaluate its border policy and possibly stop allowing people into the country from Greece, which is a member of the EU. The government in Skopje has not criticized the potential European plans or commented on how Macedonia's role in the refugee crisis could affect the country's negotiations to become a member of the EU.

"You cannot completely close a border," Ilieska said, but added that Skopje was preparing for the possibility it could happen. In such a situation, Macedonia would require assistance from Brussels to cope with providing assistance to refugees in the country.

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