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Macedonia overwhelmed by migrant influx

Nemanja Rujevic / db August 21, 2015

Every day, thousands of migrants arrive in Macedonia. Authorities have just closed the border with Greece, where they are largely left to their own devices. Nemanja Rujevic reports from Macedonia.

Aid worker in Macedonia
Image: DW/N. Rujević

"No matter what you've done, they aren't allowed to beat you," says Gabriela Andreevska. The young Macedonian activist explains the rules to the migrants huddled around her in Gevgelija, on the border with Greece. Reportedly, riot police have once again used their batons to restore order at the city's railway station.

"We informed the OSCE about the police violence. People from the UNHCR actually witnessed it," she told DW. "The international organizations either don't react at all, or only very slowly."

Capitulating to circumstances

The activist - who refers to herself as an anarchist - works for the Legis aid organization based in the capital Skopje. It collects food, medicine, diapers and sleeping mats for the migrants in Gevgelija, Andreevska says, and adds that "Ninety-five percent of the donations come from Macedonian citizens. The state hasn't given us a denar."

In fact, Macedonia declared a state of emergency on Thursday and said it would mobilize the army to control an unprecedented influx of migrants crossing its border from Greece. The move reverses previously lax border controls as thousands of refugees continue to arrive.

Legis tried to coordinate the aid with the Red Cross, the UNHCR and a Macedonian ministry, she says. "At our last meeting, the ministry sent a driver as its representative - that's how interested the state is in getting a grip on the crisis."

Crowd of refugees
Macedonian police don't stop the migrantsImage: DW/N. Rujević

The situation in Gevgelija illustrates how a state capitulates to the migration crisis. At first there were a few dozen, then hundreds, and now two to three thousand people pour in daily from Greece.

The Balkans route has become the most popular route west. There's not much you can do about that, the government in Skopje seems to think. The borders are open and the message is loud and clear: Move on to Serbia!

The current situation, however, highlights one of the chronic problems poor Balkans states face: the infrastructure is ancient, and there aren't enough trains to take the thousands of migrants north to the Serb border.

Gevgelija mayor Ivan Frangov denies this is a form of capitulation. "Our southern neighbor Greece - an EU member state - passed the problem on to us," the sturdy man with the unbuttoned shirt and the gold chain around his neck says. "So why ask how Macedonia can help - isn't it enough to let the migrants enter the country without any problems?"

Ivan Frangov
Mayor Frangov blames Greece for the flood of migrants into MacedoniaImage: DW/N. Rujevic

Frangov says the people who live near the station in his town hardly dare leave their houses anymore." I feel for the migrants, but that doesn't mean our country should have to suffer," he said.

Trash everywhere

Gevgelija made the headlines worldwide because of the skyrocketing migrant numbers, but for the small town's residents, garbage is the number one topic.

Early in the morning, men wearing white t-shirts emblazoned with a red cross join the crowds in the train station. They collect garbage and plastic bottles left behind by the migrants.

"Why don't they throw their trash into the bins?" one of them mutters as he downs a schnapps at the station bar during a short break. "These people want to integrate in Germany? Well, much luck."

Garbage collection isn't normally a Red Cross task, but things are different in Gevgelija.

The migrants here are good people, but there are just too many, says Sanja Kostadinova, a Red Cross coordinator in Gevgelija. "They sit in private parks and yards and sometimes they steal bikes or pick pockets."

The city needs a camp for the migrants, she says. The state and the UNHCR provide aid, she says, but it's hardly noticeable. She says she isn't aware of any European assistance.

Train car, legs sticking out window
He may not have a seat, but this migrant is headed to SerbiaImage: Reuters/S. Nenov

Aid organizations in Skopje send doctors to Gevgelija. Every day, about 50 people need medical care, but all they get is temporary first aid for injuries from scuffles for a seat on the train or waiting in line for documents, Kostadinova said.

'Where are the pros?'

Philine von Oppeln is shocked at the haphazard aid situation.

The German writer was in Macedonia to gather material for a travel guide when she saw what was happening in Gevgelija on TV and decided to help out there instead. Von Oppeln linked up with Legis in Skopje, and now distributes humanitarian aid to migrants. "I ask myself where the aid groups are," she says.

The UNHCR has set up a camp in Tabanovce, a village just a few hundred meters from the Serbian border. A few white tents erected near the station offer shelter to families with young children. The migrants stop to rest before they attempt to cross the border illegally under the noses of the Serb police.

"All I want is to continue to the next country," said Ali, traveling with a group from Pakistan and Afghanistan. And then? "On to the next country."