The NGO Legis is one of the few organizations working with migrants and refugees in Macedonia. An interview with Mersiha Smailovikj, one of the founders of Legis, provides a complex picture of the situation
How long has Legis been in existence? How did you come to be interested in migrants?
We have been working in the field of human rights and inter-culture since 2009. Early in 2014 we were called to a public hospital because an interpreter was needed for a Syrian patient there. His account opened a world for us on the trafficking of human beings, which was very widespread, especially for Syrians: this patient was injured, covered with wounds, when an Egyptian trafficker threw him out of a travelling vehicle. Then we began to look into the question. In September 2014 we were in the border zone between Macedonia and Serbia where we saw a large number of Syrian families waiting for traffickers who were easily visible because they were the only ones well-dressed. Then we met Lence Zdravkin who had been working with refugees passing through Veles for some time. When winter came we began collecting aid of various kinds.
What was the legal status of refugees in Macedonia at that time?
As they passed through Macedonia, in transit, they were considered clandestine, which made it difficult to collect contributions in an organised way. At that time they came under the penal code according to which illegal migrants had to be sent back to their country of entry – if it wasn’t possible to determine this, they had to be taken to the Gazi Baba centre, near Skopje, a kind of prison. The result was many migrants escaped from the police and put themselves into the hands of the traffickers’ network, which then grew rapidly. We requested an authorization to enter Gazi Baba where we found a terrible situation, with a great number of women and children. People remained in there for up to 5 or 6 months with no chance of free legal assistance, with just basic medical care. Built to house 120 people, in May it had 450 occupants.
The Public Prosecutor, in his report on Gazi Baba, defined as torture how the prisoners were treated - some of them were there as witnesses against traffickers, and some of them arrested while walking and awaiting expulsion to Greece.
In January I described the situation within the Gazi Baba center to Human Rights Watch, contributing to a report released on September 21 which exposes the severity of detention conditions. The issue of refugees in Macedonia became so dramatic last year that what happened August 21 in Gevgelija, when the police used tear gas and deafening hand grenades against migrants trying to enter, seems nothing compared with what took place before that.
What made the situation in Macedonia so serious?
Macedonia has the dramatic record of 30 migrants hit by trains while walking along the railway lines they used to get their bearings. In most cases it happened in tunnels or on bridges where the victims, even if they saw the train arriving, had no room to get away. These were also tremendous traumas for the train drivers, some of whom never went back to work. In the case of the 14 migrants hit on 24 April 2015, mostly Afghanis, those involved were adolescents and the Macedonian government considered autopsies on their bodies to be too expensive, which is in contradiction with international law. There have been awful cases, for example an Afghan woman who saw her new born son and husband die on the line and was then taken to Gazi Baba.
As Legis we have been looking for solutions, taking as an example the fact that in Serbia asylum seekers were not dying on the roads because there was a law permitting refugees to travel legally through the country for 72 hours. We applied pressure for the same law to be adopted in Macedonia.
We’ve tried using the media, putting pressure on Members of Parliament and on the appropriate Ministry, but to no effect, at least until the incident of 24 April. Furthermore, with the great wave of arrivals of refugees from Greece, there was no space left in Gazi Baba and the authorities let them continue on foot. That too was a very difficult period.
We then organised mobile teams both distributing humanitarian aid together with the Red Cross, and providing other forms of assistance: for example we bought cheap bicycles to help them cross Macedonia as quickly as possible. But anyway this wasn’t enough – refugees took 10 days to cross Macedonia on foot and often they were attacked by criminals who were not all Macedonians.
UNHCR was also mobilised and a campaign began for a safe form of transport, since Macedonia is considered an unsafe country which no EU country can send migrants back to. From June 19, 2015 a law came into operation authorizing refugees to circulate in the country for 72 hours and use public transport.
So, did a new phase begin with June 19?
Yes, but new problems started with overcrowding at the borders. At Gevgelija, on the Greek border, the level of xenophobia is very high and thousands of refugees leave the station every day with no support. The mayor refused to install a camp in the town, so it was built outside, without water or electricity. Now, on average, refugees stay in Macedonia about 6 hours, but they wait a long time at the border. Conditions in Macedonia do not allow more than 4,000 refugees to transit and police control the entrance at the border, while Greece no longer does this.
Everything was normal until August 21: the police let groups of refugees through, about fifty at a time, as we personally witnessed. Then one day a state of crisis was declared, a press conference held and it was stated that the border would be closed. We were shocked.
What do you think could have been the reason for this about turn?
To receive funds from the European Union. The authorities immediately stated they had requested European funds, pleading that Macedonia could not meet the crisis alone. In Macedonia, however, the state does not run the refugee camps (while Serbia has many) or provide aid to refugees – this is only given by non-governmental organizations. Policemen are not paid overtime. Refugee centres are at present empty because the migrants hurry to leave Macedonia. So Macedonia has, in effect, no expenses. It even earns a million euro a month from tickets the refugees buy, the price of which has recently doubled. Before the migrants arrived the trains were empty. So, in August there was no reason for a crisis, the peak in Macedonia having really been up till May when migrants were forced to travel on foot.
What has been the attitude of the Macedonian Government in the various phases of the crisis?
Until recently politics ignored the refugees, while the traffickers’ network flourished. Still, the country’s leaders could not have been unaware of the living conditions in the centre of Gazi Baba.
The media frequently portrayed the migrants in a negative light, often repeating that Macedonian citizens needed protecting from these arrivals. But there have been no reports of crimes committed by refugees against Macedonians.
The accusations of ISIS penetration in the ranks of Syrian refugees have been totally unfounded. In Macedonia, about a month ago, twenty Macedonian citizens were arrested in a police action for going to fight in Syria. This means that the state had not been able to block them before their departure and that the issues in that context are different.
How do the opening and closing of European borders influence the flow of refugees?
When the news arrived of Germany opening its borders, the refugees became more optimistic, but at the same time the spectre of the construction of a wall by the Hungarian Government and the adoption of a law making migration illegal and punishable as a crime, made them very impatient. In the area between Greece and Macedonia there are thousands of refugees waiting, some for days, while the police try, often using violence, to control them. Probably the pressure in future will be on Serbia where the migrants prefer to wait, at the gates to Europe, rather than in Macedonia.
Who are your activists?
The board of directors consists of seven people, from among the founders of Legis, but during the crisis we created a network of volunteers both in the North and West of the country, which includes Macedonians, Albanians, members of other communities and international volunteers. When we asked the Embassies present in Macedonia for funds, we underlined the fact that all previous projects for multiculturality had failed, while it had been the refugees to unite the peoples of Macedonia – a great demonstration of solidarity.
Did you expect this?
Not to this level. For example a Facebook group was created called Help the migrants in Macedonia which collected funds and communicated information on travelling migrants. Sometimes local people were quicker than we were to take them food. This solidarity has been the only positive outcome of this crisis, in a country which has its own economic difficulties, experienced the conflict in 2001 between Albanians and Macedonians, has eight nationalities and is politically divided. In a certain sense the migrants have united everyone across the board.
Have you received support from religious entities?
Yes, at the height of the crisis, when thousands of people were walking on the railway tracks and water was vital, the Macedonian Orthodox Church gave five tons of water. In the last week the Islamic community has recognised Legis as an organization, Lence Zdravkin and two other people for humanitarian activity – that is three non-Muslim people. It also gave 20 tons of water and 5,000 packs of food. The two major religious organizations in Macedonia have been mobilitated, even if they could have done more, considering their budget. Other international organizations, Protestant and Catholic, have sent aid.
Has the refugee question been exploited politically?
The right-wing government of the VMRO-DPMNE and most of the media that support it often show a negative image of the refugees. We have talked to the political parties in Parliament, we have received support from the Social-Democratic Party but during the most critical periods that party boycotted the Parliament and did not participate in political activity.
We have had a lot of meetings with the Albanian party DUI in the government, and some parliamentary members of the right have shown awareness of the issue and helped to accelerate the procedure for approving the law in question. However, all took place too late. Measures should have been taken from the beginning of the crisis. As regards the internal balance, there is Muslim solidarity but the Albanian community struggles to identify with the refugees just for the religious faith – they have nothing in common linguistically or culturally. And not all refugees are Muslim, there are many Christians and atheists.
What information do you have on violence committed on migrants and kidnapping reported by the international press?
The information leads to two well-known villages, Vaksintse and Lojane, at the border with Serbia where there is an easy pass to cross. Here some gangs have grown up, made up of local people and Afghan criminals – a certain Ali Baba is talked about – who have started to kidnap refugees, in particular Syrians, making them ask their families to send money, terrorizing and beating them. This affair claimed the attention of the international press, like Channel 4 and the BBC with whom we entered the house where the migrants were supposed to be kept as prisoners and which was obviously empty. Some journalists addressed the Home Secretary, saying that migrants were being held prisoner in some houses in Vaksintse, but the police announced its proposed action publically, beforehand, and when they entered the village it was empty. The migrants we met heading for Syria asked us how to avoid those two villages. We were also told that false information was being given out to refugees while they were still in Greece, telling them to go via Lojane and Vaksintse because if they went via Tabanovce, Serbia would refuse them entry. We published leaflets in various languages to inform them of the danger those two villages still represent, but the migrants continue to go there, particularly the Afghanis who tend to listen to what their fellow nationals tell them. We were never able to take humanitarian aid there because of the opposition of the local population which had always profited from the refugees.
In recent months assaults, kidnappings and rapes of refugees crossing the country on foot have been confirmed. In several cases they have said they were attacked by individuals in uniform. Faced with the question, the police answered that no refugee had reported anything of the kind. However it is obvious that an illegal migrant would never go to the police to report violence.
Has there been an investigation into this?
The Home Secretary said there had been two or three cases of internal investigations which had led to disciplinary measures being taken against members of the police force which had never been made public. No member of the police had ever been arrested for having committed crimes against refugees or having abused his position. Between January and May nevertheless 140 Macedonian citizens had been investigated as suspected of trafficking migrants.
What is your opinion on the Foreign Minister Nikola Poposki’s declaration on 10 September to the Hungarian weekly “Figelo” about the construction of a wall on the boundary with Greece?
We think it is simply a threat and a declaration not thought through, following the wave of similar positions of the extreme right in Europe and made to appease internal public opinion, where it is commonly felt that Macedonia has been left alone. There would be no reason for building a barrier, since the migrants do not stop in Macedonia but, paradoxically, they represent a source of income.
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