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Macedonia's refugee dilemma

Boris Georgievski
February 10, 2016

As Greece continues to struggle with the influx of refugees, some EU countries hope that its northern neighbor Macedonia can deter them. Amid a deep political crisis, the Balkan country is a questionable choice.

Macedonia is building a second fence at the border with Greece (Photo: AP)
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/B. Grdanoski

Macedonia has been the main transit point for almost 700,000 migrants heading from Greece to Western and Northern Europe on the so-called Balkan route since the beginning of 2015. Macedonian authorities are finalizing the construction of a new barbed-wire fence at the border with Greece.

It is not clear when exactly Macedonia might close its border to refugees, but once the fence is up, and when the signal from the EU comes, it could happen anytime, Macedonian officials told DW on condition of anonymity.

Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico said he expected the Visegrad countries - Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland - to approve the plan for strengthened border protection in Macedonia at their meeting in Prague on February 15.

"Then it won't matter whether Greece will or will not be a part of Schengen, [the EU's passport-free travel zone] because we will be able to stop the migrants," Fico said.

Children traveling alone on the Balkan route
More and more children are traveling alone on the Balkan routeImage: DW/N. Rujević

For Gerald Knaus, chairman of the European Stability Initiative (ESI), the notion of using "the weakest states in the region" to build a wall against a Schengen member state is "crazy."

Two conflicting European concepts

He talks about "a race in Europe between two very different concepts" in the refugee crisis. The concept of the Visegrad countries - which Knaus calls "the brainchild of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban" - proposes blocking refugees by constructing a new wall across the Southern Balkans along the green borders between Greece and all of its northern neighbors - Macedonia, Albania and Bulgaria.

The other concept, backed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, aims at resettling hundreds of thousands of refugees from Turkey to a group of EU member states and ending the "Balkan route" by controlling the Aegean through a close cooperation between Greece and Turkey.

However, the idea of turning Macedonia, which is not a member state of the EU, into a wall against refugees has also gained support from Brussels. In late January, Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the European Commission, wrote to Slovenia's Prime Minister, Miro Cerar, assuring him that the Commission supported his plan for all EU countries to "provide assistance [to Macedonia] to support controls on the border with Greece through the secondment of police/law enforcement officers and the provision of equipment."

Just a matter of time?

German daily "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" wrote this week that "the border between Macedonia and Greece will be completely closed in the next weeks" - also affecting refugees fleeing from war-torn countries.

Macedonian officials told DW there were no plans to shut the border in the coming days or weeks. "Macedonia is a transit country and will act in accordance with the EU and the EU member states," said Ivica Bocevski, Special Advisor for Foreign Affairs to the Macedonian President.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, another high-ranking Macedonian government official told DW any decision to close the border would be made in Brussels or Berlin, not in Skopje. "There is no deadline on February 15 or any other date," he added, "but once the decision is made, we will respect it."

Deep political crisis

The political crisis in Macedonia further complicates the situation. Facing accusations of widespread corruption, election manipulation and illegal wiretapping, Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski resigned in mid-January. But his nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party is still in control of the government and actively supports the project of building the wall on the southern border. Therefore, Gruevski and his party receive strong support from the Visegrad countries that regard him as a reliable partner.

While the Visegrad group sees the new wall as a symbol of stability and a road to opening EU accession talks with Skopje, Michael Roth, minister for Europe at the German Foreign Ministry, told DW after a visit to Macedonia that "there will be no political concessions" in return for the country's cooperation on the migration issue.

Political concessions aside, the best hope for a small and poor country like Macedonia is a solution that keeps the refugees and migrants in Turkey or in their home countries, a high-ranking official in the Macedonian police told DW.

"Unfortunately, we don't have the resources to solve such a crisis", he said. In his opinion, building a wall cannot be the solution. It would not stop the migrants, but only strengthen smuggling networks.

"Imagine a situation in which we have to stop 50,000 or 100,000 people trying to cross our border from Greece by force," he added. "What are we going to do? Shoot at them?"