Migrants - © Pressmaster/Shutterstock

© Pressmaster/Shutterstock

Located at the heart of the "Balkan route", North Macedonia has been a transit country for many migrants in search of a new life in Europe. Some of them, however, decided to stay

27/10/2023 -  Aleksandar Samardjiev Tetovo

In these last years, several hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees transited through North Macedonia, headed to Western European countries for a better life. But there are exceptions, too: some decided to stay looking for a new home and opportunities.

For almost a decade people fleeing wars, economic instability, and hunger – now often prompted by climate change – have crossed North Macedonia as migrants and refugees Most came from the Middle East or North Africa. The so-called Balkan route – of which North Macedonia is a crucial knot – moves mainly from Turkey and Greece, through South-East Europe to the central European countries that are usually the final destination of migrants.

This year, Radio Free Europe in Macedonian language published stories about two migrants who decided to stay in North Macedonia instead of continuing their journey to the western part of Europe. Sandra, 30, came from Congo, and Aliraza, 25, from Pakistan. Both already speak Macedonian and believe that they will stay.

Sandra's story

Sandra Membala left the Congolese capital of Kinshasa eight years ago, at the age of 22. She travelled through several African countries till she reached the Balkan route, arriving first in Turkey and then in Greece. She lived in Greece for a year, but she had no way to stay. So she left the country for France to meet her husband, but when she arrived in the Macedonian capital, Skopje, she stayed here. She believes that Macedonian society has welcome her and her two children.

“It's nice in North Macedonia, calmer. I want to live here with my husband and children. Our daughter was born here, the children know Macedonian even better than I do. Sonia is five years old; Sofian is eight years old. They have friends at school and where we live”, says Sandra, speaking in Macedonian in an interview for the radio.

She has been taking Macedonian lessons for three years, and says that they speak several languages at home, their native Lingala, Macedonian, and French. Sandra has a document for temporary residence but wishes to stay permanently. In Skopje, she works at the Red Cross, at the Point for free distribution of clothes for people at social risk. She also helps out in a thrift store where she arranges clothes on the shelves.

And Aliraza's

Pakistani Aliraza Qureshi, who has been living in North Macedonia for five years, became a migrant with the desire to live in a better place than his native land. Now he lives in Skopje and has a girlfriend from the town of Kriva Palanka, and they are thinking about a life together.

Aliraza Qureshi's knowledge of nine languages helps him work for several government institutions as a translator. He has a temporary residence permit in the country for humanitarian reasons, which he renews every year, but he says he is determined to stay in the hope of getting Macedonian citizenship.

Alone as a child, he left Pakistan with the desire to reach Germany. Without documents and without parents, he set out to walk and made several unsuccessful attempts to reach his desired destination.

“On such a path, no one helps you, only God, brother does not care about brother. In a group of 50 people we went through the mountains with smugglers, five people died because of the cold. I also thought that I would die, that I would not stay alive. But I decided that every task must have a solution and I must reach the end. The hardest thing for me was when the smuggler put me in the trunk for 18 hours, me plus three others locked inside”, says Aliriza.

He spent three years and a half in Turkey, then he planned to go to Germany by sea, but he was sent back from Italy. The next destination where he worked as a farmer was Greece. At that time, he made another attempt to go to Germany, but eventually stayed in North Macedonia.

“Obviously I found peace here”, says the young man, who in addition to Macedonian speaks Urdu, Pashto, Farsi, Indian, Punjabi, Bengali, Nepali, Turkish, and Hindko.

As a translator, he has assignments in several institutions such as the Prosecutor's Office, courts, police. The Red Cross calls for cooperation when there is a need to communicate with migrants entering North Macedonia from Greece, near the city of Gevgelija.

Just like Sandra, he proudly displays his temporary residence permit for humanitarian reasons. Wanting to stay in North Macedonia, he applied for asylum but did not receive it, on the grounds that he could not show a justified fear of persecution in the country. Now he has given up his plans about Germany and says that he will stay in North Macedonia, where he and his girlfriend are making wedding plans.

Political asylum, a rarity

The Macedonian Red Cross notes that since 2015 only 13 migrants have received asylum, which shows that the country is rarely the final destination for migrants. A large number of press reports in North Macedonia are devoted to the daily discovery of smugglers who charge migrants high sums for transiting through the country.

There are cases of migrants who died in traffic and other accidents while the smugglers were running away from the police, and some lost their arms or legs. According to Macedonian press reports, smugglers charge migrants 800 to 1,000 Euros to transport them from the southern to the northern border of the country.

It is precisely those 13 migrants who stayed in North Macedonia with asylum because of the severe injuries they suffered while in transit, such as the loss of limbs, according to the Red Cross. They had to undergo an operation and therefore decided to seek asylum, in order to have access to healthcare and integration programmes.

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