August 22 2015

Northbound: European refugee crisis in Macedonia

Katerina Ilievska, a correspondent for SOS Children's Villages International, travelled to the border between FYR Macedonia and Greece late last week to report on the unfolding refugee crisis.

"Don't drink the water!" I hear as I quench my thirst at a fountain in a public park in Gevgelija. I turn around and see two boys who explain, "The refugees washed their feet in it just now."
"Ah, well, water under the bridge," I joke giving turn to my two companions who also didn't mind what apparently happened at the fountain.

The three of us – I, a colleague from SOS Children's Villages FYR Macedonia, and a representative of another aid organisation – just came back from a long walk, though not nearly as long as the one taken by the people we came here for.

Refugees at water fountain outside the train station in Gevgelija. Photographer: Katerina Ilievska

The opposite of normal

To describe the situation in Gevgelija, Macedonia's southern-most town, at only three kilometres from the border with Greece, as alarming would be an understatement.

Until Wednesday the town with a population of about 15,000 gave daily shelter to thousands of refugees fleeing Syria, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia . Normal life discontinued. For everyone.

"You see the thermometer at that pharmacy?" one of my companions asks. "It's 36 degrees now. Couple of weeks ago it was 49 degrees. Then, there were around 4,000 refugees right here. Small children, families, elderly, injured people laying all over. It was unbearable for all."

The FYR Macedonian Ministry of Interior Affairs reports that over 42,000 refugees entered the country legally over the summer at the Gevgelija border crossing. Activists of local NGOs estimate this would be about a third of the total number of refugees who passed through Macedonia.

The halt

On 19 August 2015 the FYR Macedonian Government declared a state of emergency on the country's southern and northern border allowing for deployment of special forces to guard the border lines preventing illegal crossings.

The spokesperson of the Ministry of Interior Affairs stated the move enables controlled entry in the country and eases the boarding of trains and buses headed to the northern border with Serbia.

Starting 21 August 2015, the police began allowing entry to several groups of refugees per day, about 200 at a time, only through police controlled crossings. Illegal entries still happen, NGO activists say.

At lunchtime Friday, there are about 50 people at the train station. A mother of three sits in the shade of the station building. She speaks no English, but with hand gestures and the help of her friend who knows a few English words, she allows me to join them and take snapshots of her children.

A mother from Aleppo, traveling with three small children, hopes to make it to Germany. Photographer: Katerina Ilievska

As kids are

Her two girls, age four and six, are suspicious for a second, then start happily posing. The four-year-old points at the camera. She wants to take pictures. Her model is her six-month-old brother.

I ask the mother where are they from. She misunderstands and tells me, "Alemania". "OK, Germany. But?" I say pointing backwards and waving my head. "Oh, Aleppo," she says tearing up.

I ask nothing for a while, opting instead to play with the little girls. The younger one is ticklish and seems to enjoy it.

For a moment, I forget where we were. The girls giggle, take pictures, ask their mom to hold the boy straight. They're really good photographers, too! As most children usually are.


Using our, by now established, way of communication, the mother tells me that she got a food package containing baby formula. She gives me thumbs up that it's enough for awhile as I squeeze the cutest little feet in the world.

Many of the refugees are small children. Photographer: Katerina Ilievska
The six-month-old baby boy looks at me indifferently. He doesn't mind my pinches, nor the flies landing on his feet in swarms.

The mother tells me they want to board the 5 pm train. She doesn't want to leave the station for fear they could miss it. "Alemania," she repeats.

Their next destination is Tabanovce, Macedonia's border with Serbia. Another train or bus will take them to the border with Hungary and, hopefully soon, to their ultimate destination.

Children first!

NGO activists on the ground say the first wave of refugees, several months ago, were mostly men. Most said they headed to Germany in order to get established before sending for their families.

A UNHCR representative says most people travel in large familial groups. Women are unwilling to take advantage of the privileged registration process which favours pregnant women and mothers with children, in order not to be separated from their group.

The registration process at the south Macedonian border provides the refugees with a paper declaring intent to seek asylum in the country. This paper, valid for 72 hours, allows them to either cross FYR Macedonia legally or seek asylum. The overwhelming majority chooses the former option.

The UNHCR representative appeals for help to mothers and babies. "Baby formula is desperately needed. So are diapers and baby creams for rashes. Many of these mothers couldn't change the diapers for days."

Autumn is coming

A representative of a local NGO, Legis – which has been on the ground since day one and knows the refugees' needs well, adds, "Space blankets! The weather is becoming rainy and colder. People can use such blankets to cover themselves, or as sleeping mats, or for diaper changing."

He adds that raincoats or any waterproof materials are welcome as well. "I hate to think what would be needed further," he says, reminded of harsh Macedonian winters that can see temperatures drop to even -20 degrees.

Down the refugee path

At the proposal of one of my companions, we leave the station and head towards the southern border line to check out the space to be set up for a new rest area, for registering refugees and providing services. We walk down the rail lines amidst piles of garbage.

Train tracks, southern Macedonia. The refugees are following them north. Photographer: Katerina Ilievska

The area is one hectare of open space along the railway and about half a kilometre from the border. It's much bigger, but completely unprotected from the elements. In addition, there is no train platform nor sewage system.

We walk further down relying on Google Maps to give us our precise location.

No need.

We stop in complete silence. From the not so far distance we hear screaming. We know exactly where we are – a couple of hundred metres from the border where thousands of refugees are being held in the no-man's land between Greece and Macedonia.

Our attempts to dodge the passing police cars go unnoticed. Making recordings here is against the law, but the police seem to understand that the human tragedy needs to be recorded.

Catastrophe in progress

Earlier on Friday, an amateur video posted on Facebook showed the Macedonian police using shock bombs and rubber bullets on the refugees. The Macedonian public was outraged. The video spread like wildfire around the world triggering similar reactions of disgust.

"We are helping and will continue helping the refugees," pledges the Mayor of Gevgelija. "But, please understand, we must not allow for one human catastrophe to cause another."

A representative of the FYR Macedonian Railroads says the blockage of the railway due to the crisis is significantly harming the company, which, he says, could have ripple effects on other industry branches. Macedonia, with an approximate population of two million, is already one of Europe's poorest countries.

Help needed!

This is the second major refugee crisis Macedonia has faced since the small landlocked country gained independence in 1991. The first was the 1999 Kosovo refugee crisis.

Despite the huge public outpouring of support and solidarity, it is clear that Macedonia cannot handle a refugee crisis of such proportions alone.

The current number of refugees south of the border awaiting entry is said to be around 30,000 with about 2,000 new arrivals disembarking ships daily and heading towards Macedonia.

NGO representatives say that the biggest waves of refugees are yet to come. They're learning this from the refugees themselves who also tell them Macedonia became known as the safest country in this part of the Balkans, which is why people choose to pass through it.